The air filter could be purchased at a hardware store for $20. The same goes for the box fan it’s strapped to.
Bound together with some bungee cords, these homemade filter-fans are the brainchild of David Wells, a particle physicist from Silver Spring. Wells hopes to raise awareness about a cost-effective solution he thinks could increase airflow and improve air quality at polling places around the state to make in-person voting safer in the upcoming November election.
The idea came to Wells when his brother wanted to return to in-person church services, which had been closed during the coronavirus pandemic. He thought cleaning the air might keep his brother safe.
“My brother wanted to go to church and sing,” said Wells, who works for Light House Worldwide Solutions, a California-based company that makes air quality testing equipment. “I don’t want him to die, so I said, ‘What do you need?’”
His brother, John Wells, an Annapolis economist and self-described citizen activist said the goal is to increase voter turnout and make poll workers safer, many of whom skew older and are more at-risk for the coronavirus.
“If you increase turnout, you get a more fair election,” Wells said. “Hopefully we can be a model for the rest of the state.”
David Wells placed his contraptions strategically on tables within Pip Moyer Recreation Center’s gym to demonstrate how they might work on election day. As the contraptions quietly pushed air around the room, representatives from the Maryland and Anne Arundel County election boards took notes and asked questions.
The election board representatives were responsible for determining if the system is proven to work, cost-effective and feasible, said Rick Jerscheid, an election program IT specialist with the county election board.
While most reviews of polling places have centered on sanitation, a major factor is how much power is required, Jerscheid said. The voting machines require substantial power and the number of outlets in the polling place is limited with some having as few as five outlets.
Another piece is ensuring the election process is not disrupted, said Keith Ross, assistant deputy for project management at the State Board of Elections. Election officials wouldn’t commit to Wells’ idea just yet for the county’s planned 28 large voting centers.
Wells said he doesn’t have an eye on making a profit from the venture. He wants to save lives.
“I’m trying to make products as fast as I possibly can to help people, and they will,” he said.
The filter-fans are not his own invention, Wells said. Others around the country have created similar iterations as they seek to safely reopen schools, businesses and voting places amid the pandemic.
Wells’ fans cost roughly $50 compared to $200 to $300 for a high-efficiency particulate air filter able to trap about 99.97% of particles roughly the same size as the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Research on the effectiveness of air filters is still ongoing and could only prove somewhat useful in fighting the virus. The virus is primarily spread by person-to-person contact and through respiratory droplets expelled when coughing, sneezing, or talking, according to a June CDC report.
Bumper Moyer, the facility supervisor at Pip Moyer, said he was approached recently by the Wells brothers though he doesn’t have authority to implement the plan — that’s up to the board of elections.
The City of Annapolis is committed to finding ways to improve protecting the health and safety of people who use the recreation center during the pandemic, Moyer said.
“We’re just trying to be proactive and look at all arenas. … If you trust the machinery, it does work,” said Moyer pointing to an array of air quality meters and sensors constantly measuring the air inside of the cavernous gym.
Still, the safest way to vote during the pandemic is by mail, county Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman said this week, especially for older residents or people with underlying health conditions. If residents decide to vote in-person, he urged them to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and practice social distancing.
To address concerns about in-person voting, Anne Arundel County officials announced Wednesday more than two dozen ballot drop boxes in addition to large polling places. Residents will be permitted to vote at any center in the county instead of the one closed to their homes. They may vote in other counties but only for presidential candidates.
Even if Wells’ system isn’t ultimately used by the elections board this fall, he hopes it could at least show cost-effective filter-fans could be used in other settings. There are plans to demonstrated the fans in other places like yoga studios and daycares.
“I think this technology needs to be in schools and all the people need to be talking about upgrading filters in buildings and making our spaces safer,” he said. “That’s not just about voting, that will generally make us healthier.”