Secretaries of state or election boards in 29 of the 33 states with current mask mandates told CNN that their rules would not prevent someone who refused to wear a mask from casting a vote. The four other states did not respond to questions about the issue.
Elections officials in nearly all of those states say masks are strongly encouraged for people voting in person. Many states will be offering voters free masks at polling places, as well as requiring poll workers to wear masks.
And more than a dozen states say voters who refuse to wear a mask will have to follow special procedures, like filling out their ballot curbside or in an isolated area of a polling place away from other voters.
Still, “we will not be turning voters away for not wearing a face covering, as voting is a constitutional right,” said Kristen Muszynski, a spokesperson for the Maine secretary of state — a sentiment echoed by election administrators around the country.
Officials are facing a delicate balancing act between voting rights and public health in a country where refusing to put on a mask has become a kind of political statement.
Some health experts worry that a potential lack of mask-wearing could turn Election Day into a superspreader event at some voting sites. At the same time, mask rules have already sparked polling place confrontations.
“We’re staying very far from people and we’re not causing any commotion,” one of the voters told a police officer, body camera footage provided to CNN through a records request shows.
“It’s voter suppression,” another said.
Patchwork of mask rules
But millions of other Americans will vote in person, either on Election Day or during early voting over the next two weeks. Voters casting their ballots in person will face a patchwork of rules across the country, with some jurisdictions enforcing their mask orders more strictly and others saying they have no legal authority to prevent voters from going maskless.
In Maryland, “voters who refuse to wear a mask and do not provide a medical reason or acceptable disability” will be required to vote a provisional ballot, which can be accepted by election judges outside of the building or in a part of the building away from other voters, said Bruce Miller, a spokesperson for the state’s Board of Elections.
“The election judges can provide a secure bag or container for the voter to place the provisional ballot inside,” he said.
In Washington, DC, voters without masks won’t be allowed inside the city’s voting centers, said Nick Jacobs, a spokesperson for the city’s Board of Elections. They will be allowed to vote curbside — but not all polling places are set up for curbside voting, so anyone who refuses to wear a mask would have to go to a vote center where it is provided, Jacobs said.
And in Minnesota, voters will be offered masks and those who refuse will be asked to vote curbside. If they insist on voting inside a polling place, “they will still be allowed to vote, but their name will be recorded as in violation of the Governor’s mask requirement and reported to the appropriate authorities,” said Risikat Adesaogun, a spokesperson for the Minnesota secretary of state.
Legal experts say that states are likely allowed to require voters to wear masks to enter polling places under federal law, especially if they provide alternate methods of casting a ballot such as curbside voting.
“If a state can require you to produce an ID, it probably can require you to wear a mask,” said Richard Hasen, a University of California Irvine law professor who studies voting rights. “It’s not all that burdensome.”
But Hasen said that if states did try to stop maskless people from voting altogether, those rules could backfire by leading to “more people deliberately not wearing masks as a political statement” and more controversy that disrupts voting.
That means that polling places could be some of the few indoor, public places in those states where wearing a mask isn’t required over the next two weeks.
“It’s like a textbook for disease transmission,” he said. “You’re lining up, you’re waiting for a long period, you’re indoors, there may be poor ventilation … it doesn’t make sense from a public health perspective.”
A few state elections officials noted that local authorities could theoretically set mask rules that could apply to polling places. In Washington and Oregon, for example, elections are conducted almost completely through the mail. Individual counties run their own vote centers or privacy booths for voting and set their own policies, spokespeople for the secretaries of state said.
Officials in four states that have current mask mandates — Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, and Montana — did not respond to repeated requests for comment from CNN.
‘We expect them to be very cooperative’
Even briefly removing a mask indoors increases the risk of transmission, said Chin-Hong, the disease expert. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State did not respond to that criticism.
So far, most state officials are emphasizing voting rights even as they try to protect public health.