Elections

No COVID-19 Spike from Wisconsin’s In-Person Voting

Voters wait in a line, which continued a few blocks south of the polling location, to vote in the presidential primary election while wearing masks and practicing social distancing at Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Wisc., April 7, 2020. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters)
Some good news, for a change.

More than three weeks after 413,000 Wisconsin voters went to the polls, there has not been the spike in COVID-19 cases attributed to the election that many feared.

“The state said about two dozen people may have been infected on election day,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on Wednesday. “Some have characterized these numbers as an ‘uptick,’ but the experts are cautious.”

Ryan Westergaard, the chief medical officer at the Department of Health Services, told the paper that a link could not be established between the election and the very small number of cases that had developed among the 413,000 voters who showed up to the polls on April 7.

“With the data we have, we can’t prove an association,” Westergaard said. “It would be speculative to say that was definitely the cause without really investigating closely and being clear that somebody really had no other potential exposure to infected people. I don’t think we have the resources to really do that to know definitely.”

“I don’t think that the in-person election led to a major effect, to my surprise. I expected it,” Oguzhan Alagoz, an expert in infectious-disease modeling at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told the Journal Sentinel.

A Democratic state senator suggested last week that there had been a surge of cases because of the election, but as Politifact Wisconsin reported, the surge was due to an outbreak at several meat-packing facilities in Brown County, home to Green Bay. Even when accounting for the delays in testing and the virus’s incubation period, a spike in new cases due to the election should have showed up by now if it were going to occur.

The weekend before the election, a major fight erupted between the state’s Democratic governor and Republican legislature over postponing the vote.

For several weeks after the outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States, Democratic governor Tony Evers continued to support holding the election on April 7, and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden seemed to back him up on April 2.

On Friday, April 3, just four days before the election, Governor Evers made an about-face. He called on the state legislature to change the law so that an all-mail election could be held in May. The legislature rebuffed Evers’s request, and on April 6, the day before the election, Evers attempted to unilaterally postpone the election — an order he had repeatedly said would be illegal.

To back up Evers, the state’s health-department secretary-designee, Andrea Palm, expressed absolute certitude that in-person voting would result in more COVID-19 deaths, saying, on April 6: “In-person voting would, without question, accelerate the transmission of COVID-19 and increase the number of cases. An increase in the number of cases in Wisconsin would result in more deaths.” Republican legislative leaders challenged Evers’s order, and the state supreme court ruled in their favor.

One major factor that spurred Evers’s last-minute attempts to postpone the election were reports that the number of polling places would be greatly reduced in the cities of Milwaukee and Green Bay. While Green Bay usually has 31 polling places, it had only two open on April 7. Milwaukee’s typical 180 polling places were consolidated into five locations.

Such a drastic reduction in the number of polling places did not occur in most of the state, and city officials in Milwaukee and Green Bay have faced criticism for not opening more sites with the resources they had.

The mayor of Green Bay rejected dozens of volunteers who offered to work the polls, and the city of Milwaukee used more than 80 poll workers and 30 National Guardsman at each of its five polling locations. Milwaukee employs an average of eleven poll workers at each polling place during a typical presidential primary.

The official running Milwaukee’s elections said he didn’t know how many National Guardsmen would be available at the time he decided to only open five polling centers. “Had we had that information [about the National Guard] sooner, I absolutely think it could have influenced the number of voting centers,” Neil Albrecht, the executive director of the city’s election commission, said on April 7.

A record 1.1 million Wisconsin voters cast ballots by mail (or voted early in person), and that allowed polling places to be sparsely populated in most of the state on Election Day. But thousands of voters in Milwaukee and Green Bay experienced long lines and waits of up to two hours — the type of mass gathering that many feared would spread the virus.

Voters attempted to keep their distance from one another and mostly waited outside the polling places — perhaps another data point indicating that the virus does not spread well outdoors.

The absence of a much-feared wave of election-induced infections in Wisconsin is one small piece of good news in an otherwise grim month.

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