Update: this article was updated to reflect changes to telephone voting eligibility.
Given what’s happening in some places in the world right now, we should take a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to live in a peaceful democracy. We all have a vote and a say in who should lead our country.
But just as we take our democracy for granted, we don’t often stop to appreciate the logistical challenges involved in conducting an election. Holding fair elections is one of the biggest and most complex logistical undertakings that occur in democracies around the world. And this already challenging responsibility has become a lot more difficult given we’re in the middle of a pandemic. At least 80 countries and territories around the world have postponed elections due to COVID since February 2020.
In compelling Australian adults to vote, we’re asking people to do things we have discouraged over the past two years. That is, leave their houses and come together in large numbers in a few selected locations. Looking at this through a narrow health lens, this appears to fly in the face of good sense.
However, the risks COVID poses to the community are lower now than at any time since 2020. So while this is not the time for complacency, casting your vote in 2022 doesn’t have to be a scary proposition.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is doing what it can to make voting as safe as possible. However, from a personal perspective, there are also things you can do to reduce your risks when you exercise your democratic duty to vote.
Vax the vote and mask up
First, while it’s important to highlight that no one is going to be excluded from attending voting centres on the basis of vaccination status, the best thing you can do to protect yourself and others as you cast your vote is to be fully vaccinated.
Should you be exposed to someone who is infected, this will reduce your chances of getting ill, getting severe disease, and spreading disease to others. If you haven’t already made sure you’re up-to-date with your COVID vaccinations, now is the perfect time to do this to ensure you have something close to optimal immunity come May 21.
Wearing a mask is also an effective way to reduce your risk of being infected and spreading COVID. Attending a polling booth on election day might mean coming into contact with a large number of people you don’t know in an uncontrolled situation where you may not always be able to socially distance. And you’re likely to be indoors at some stage. In this situation, wearing the best mask you can get your hands on is a sensible way to protect yourself and others.
While surfaces don’t pose a major risk, it’s still possible to contract SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, from contaminated surfaces. So resist the urge to bite your democracy pencil, and maintain good hand hygiene when you vote.
Read more: COVID mask mandates might be largely gone but here are 5 reasons to keep wearing yours
Vote early (not often)
The AEC is doing what it can to provide options for voters, both to ease the crowds on election day and to provide alternatives for those who aren’t able to attend polling booths on the day.
Pre-poll voting is becoming more popular at each election. This option will be available in the two weeks before election day and means you can avoid the crowds by voting ahead of time.
Less queuing time and less crowded polling booths reduce the likelihood of disease transmission. The only downside is if you’re a swinging voter. A lot can happen in the final two weeks of an election campaign, so voting early can have a different sort of risk!
Postal voting is available to people who know much further out from the election day they won’t be able to visit a polling booth.
The various eligibility criteria for postal voting include having “a reasonable fear for your safety”. One could reasonably consider this to apply if you’re at higher likelihood for severe COVID illness and don’t want to risk voting in person.
Read more: Fresh research says Omicron lasts much longer on surfaces than other variants – but disinfecting still works
Phone it in if necessary
The big change at this federal election is the availability of telephone voting. In early 2022, legislation was passed to allow for COVID-affected voters to cast their vote by telephone. Telephone voting is available as an emergency measure.
People who tested positive to COVID after 6pm on Friday 13 May are eligible and can register online.
The AEC website gives details of how telephone voting will work. It involves registration then obtaining a personal identification number, followed by a second call to lodge a vote. This will protect voter anonymity.
Telephone voters will need to make a declaration about their need for the service, the electoral commissioner has said.
Like many things since 2020, telephone voting is going to be a real-time experiment and it is unclear what the demand for this may be. It’s hoped that if only those who really need this service use it, it will be able to cope with the demand. But this has already proved a significant source of anxiety for the AEC.
Read more: COVID will soon be endemic. This doesn't mean it's harmless or we give up, just that it's part of life
Weighing your options
So while there is more to consider this election over and above who you will give your precious vote to, there is no reason to be anxious about voting. Even if you are in a high-risk group for COVID, you have plenty of options as to how you navigate the logistics of casting your vote to limit your exposure to risk.
And even if you wake up with respiratory symptoms or to news of a positive COVID test on May 21, you’ll have the new option of telephone voting to ensure you get a say. Of course, voting by telephone means you will have to cook your own democracy sausage.