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If you vote in person in Baltimore, you’ll need to have your temperature checked first

During the June 2, 2020, primary, a voter briefly lowers a mask to be understood by an election judge at Edmondson Westside High School in Baltimore.
During the June 2, 2020, primary, a voter briefly lowers a mask to be understood by an election judge at Edmondson Westside High School in Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore residents who opt to vote in person at early voting centers or on Election Day will be temperature checked before they enter as a precaution against the coronavirus, the city’s election director said Friday.

Voters who register a high temperature still must be allowed to vote, but they will be escorted to a location that is segregated from other voters as a precaution, said Armstead Jones, Baltimore’s election director.

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“In some cases, that’s the parking lot,” Jones said of the accommodations.

State election officials have left it up to each of Maryland’s county election offices to decide what kinds of health safety measures to implement at their voting centers during the pandemic, said Davis Garreis, head of the Maryland Association of Election Officials. Anne Arundel County, where Garreis is deputy director, will only check the temperatures of staff and election judges.

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Harford County also will check election judges' temperatures. Carroll County will not take temperature readings of any officials or voters, election director Katherine Berry said. Officials in Baltimore County and Howard County could not be reached Friday for comment.

While voters have the option of voting in person this fall, state and local officials are encouraging the use of mail-in ballots, which can be returned via mail or in ballot drop boxes. Nearly 1.6 million Marylanders have requested mail-in ballots, and about a third were returned by Friday.

Voters still can request a mail-in ballot, although the deadline is approaching. Applications must be received by a voter’s local elections office by Tuesday.

Temperature checks have become an increasingly common part of the pandemic landscape, although their use is controversial for election purposes.

Some voters were temperature screened in Michigan during that state’s primary, and images from early voting in Boston in late August showed voters being scanned with no-contact thermometers as they entered a polling place.

In June, however, state officials in Texas issued a warning to election clerks saying they are barred from doing temperature checks by a provision in the state election code that forbids asking about a voter’s health history.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued election guidelines to minimize the spread of coronavirus during the November election. The recommendations do not mention taking voters’ temperatures.

Jones said he anticipates some pushback from voters who may feel like they are being disenfranchised if they are asked to vote in a different area of a voting center. He said election judges are being trained to handle those situations, he said.

“You’re going to get those folks who are going to raise hell,” he said. “It’s not fair for them to come in infect everybody.”

Judges will be required to have their temperatures checked when they arrive, Jones noted. Anyone of them with a fever will be sent home.

Baltimore officials have ordered about 40 thermometers for the checks, Jones said. The city will offer 24 Election Day voting centers on Nov. 3 and eight early voting centers from Oct. 26 through Nov. 2.

The science behind using temperature screenings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has also been questioned. Unlike some infectious diseases, coronavirus is contagious before symptoms may appear. While fever is a common symptom of the virus, many people who have the disease never develop symptoms. Some doctors argue that setting up temperature check stations to enter buildings gives people a false sense of security.

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Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said fever is such a late-developing symptom of coronavirus that temperature screenings are an ineffective way to identify voters who may be contagious.

Wen instead recommended maximizing the time voters spend outdoors, requiring masks, and mandating and enforcing social distancing as people wait in lines.

Masks will be required inside Baltimore’s voting centers, and social distancing will be required both indoors and outside. Also, Jones said, all surfaces will be sanitized after each use, and hand sanitizer will be available for voters as they enter and exit voting centers.

Asked if a voter’s privacy could be violated if they were directed to vote in a different location, Wen noted the country remains in a public health emergency.

“It’s very difficult to balance the need to have people fulfill their constitutional duty to vote during a time of a pandemic,” she said. “This is what needs to be done.”

Joanne Antoine, executive director of voting rights advocacy group Common Cause Maryland, said she worried that temperature checks would lead to longer wait times for in-person voting.

Numerous other safety measures are planned for in-person voting in Baltimore which should be sufficient, Antoine argued.

“While we want to ensure election officials and poll workers are safe, we also don’t want to place unnecessary hurdles for voting, especially in an election where we expect voter confusion when heading to the polls,” she said.

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