As public health gathers virtually for this year’s APHA Annual Meeting, people across the country are voting. Election Day has been supplanted by Election Month, and we’re nearing its summit.

Alfredo Morabia in front of AJPH logo and Zoom attendeesIn a Monday session hosted by APHA’s American Journal of Public Health, voting advocates from around the country discussed why voting is, indeed, a public health issue.

“We’re talking about voting — no one is saying who you should vote for — just promoting the mechanism of voting,” said speaker Jeanette Kowalik, director of policy development at the Trust for America’s Health.

In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic created a need for those who safeguard the public’s health to promote safe voting practices as well. (For more information on that, check out the Healthy Voting Industry Expert Theater event on Tuesday at 9 a.m. MT / 11 a.m. EST). While almost all states have made some accommodations to allow for safer voting practices, the pandemic hasn’t only made it harder to cast a ballot on Election Day, it’s disrupted efforts to reach people with information and help on registering to vote.

“Frankly, this year is challenging,” said Brianna Carmen, director of organizing and partnerships at Voto Latino. She noted that because of the pandemic, organizations don’t have the same opportunities to encourage and help people register. The lack of person-to-person engagement makes it difficult to connect with harder-to-reach citizens, such as people for whom English is a second language or people recently out of prison.

12 people on Zoom screenDespite the challenges and potential risks to health, advocates are urgently encouraging their communities to participate in local, state and national elections through whatever options they have available to them.

“We were clear with New Yorkers that there was no zero-risk strategies,” said Oxiris Barbot, senior fellow for public health and social justice at the JPB Foundation and former commissioner of health at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “But it is safer to vote than not to vote. There is so much riding on this election that impacts health.”

Barbot encouraged people to make voting a team sport.

“Go with people who are in your social pod. Surround yourself with people online,” she said. “We may be socially distant, but emotionally we must be connected…once people have voted early, they ought to share their experiences with friends and family.”

The group of advocates at the AJPH session noted that, in the current political climate, it can be difficult to navigate issues of nonpartisanship — but it’s the politics that has changed, not public health.

“Things that are just data-driven now can sound political,” Shana Alex Charles, an assistant professor at California State University-Fullerton, told session attendees.

“In the past, it wasn’t a question of if we were going to be doing things to improve public health, but how we were going to do it,” she added. “There has been a shift away from policymakers saying that we may even do something. It has become clear now that you may need to change policymakers so that you can change policy.”

Photos of AJPH Editor-in-Chief Alfredo Morabia and other session presenters and attendees courtesy The Nation's Health.