Despite fears that Wisconsin’s April election would serve to spread the coronavirus, a new report by the Centers for Disease Control confirms that it didn’t.
Symptoms of COVID-19 typically develop 2 to 14 days after an infection. Yet the CDC notes that only 14 people out of nearly 19,000 who voted in person in Milwaukee on April 7 are known to have tested positive for the virus between April 9 and April 21, with the caveat that in about half of the new cases reported in Milwaukee during that time period, whether the person voted is unknown.
Although the CDC report focuses on Milwaukee, there do not appear to have been spikes in cases anywhere else in the state due to the election, either.
According to Elizabeth Goodstitt, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, “71 people who tested COVID-19 positive” throughout the state after April 9 and developed symptoms before April 21 “reported that they voted in person or worked the polls on election day. However, several of those people reported other possible exposures as well.” Thus, she says, “it is not accurate to say” that the 71 cases were the “result of in-person voting,” because some infections could have come from other sources.
A total of 413,000 people voted in person statewide in Wisconsin on April 7. Although a much smaller number of Wisconsinites participated in protest marches following the killing of George Floyd in late May, Wisconsin officials are aware of “28 confirmed cases reported attending a protest or rally during early June, during the 2 weeks before getting COVID-19,” Goodsitt said in an email.
In the days leading up to Wisconsin’s April 7 election, which featured a state-supreme-court race and the Democratic presidential primary, there was panic that the city of Milwaukee would experience a huge increase in COVID-19 cases following the election, because only five polling centers would be open — down from the city’s typical 180 polling places. Some voters waited two hours in long lines to cast ballots, and the city’s chief elections official later faced criticism for failing to open more polling places with the resources the city had.
But voters in Milwaukee maintained their distance, waited to vote almost entirely outdoors, and wore masks, and their efforts appear to have been effective. “No clear increase in cases, hospitalizations, or deaths was observed after the election, suggesting possible benefit of the mitigation strategies, which limited in-person voting and aimed to ensure safety of the polling sites open on election day,” the CDC reports.
While fear surrounding the Wisconsin elections was understandable at the time, the decision to hold them has proved to be important to the entire country for two reasons: Wisconsin demonstrated that in-person voting could be conducted safely despite the coronavirus pandemic, and avoided setting a dangerous precedent of allowing a chief executive to unilaterally and illegally move the election date. The latter concern may not have seemed very pressing back in early April, but it looms larger now, a day after President Trump touched off a firestorm by hinting that he might seek to postpone November’s general election.
For three weeks after Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, said he wanted to hold the election as scheduled on April 7 and resisted Democratic calls to unilaterally postpone it, insisting that he didn’t have the power to do so. But the weekend before the election, Evers did an about-face and asked the Republican legislature to postpone it. When the legislature rejected Evers’s request, he issued an order moving the election to June, taking the very action he had previously said would be illegal. Legislative leaders challenged Evers’s order, and the state supreme court ruled 4–2 against the governor.
Of course, while it is clear in hindsight that Wisconsin performed a valuable service to the country by holding its election as scheduled, the state’s experience does not mean we can rule out the possibility that other elections could significantly increase the spread of the virus. It’s just one state, and the average number of new daily cases in Wisconsin was below 200 in the run-up to its election. In-person voting in a state where thousands of new infections are being reported each day could be much more dangerous.
Editor’s note: This article has been edited since its initial publication.