The Corner

Politics & Policy

Did Wisconsin’s April 7 Elections Cause a Spike in Coronavirus Cases? 

Voters wait to cast ballots during the presidential primary election in Milwaukee, Wis., April 7, 2020. (Daniel Acker/Reuters)

In Wisconsin, 413,000 people voted in person 23 days ago. The incubation period of the coronavirus is two to 14 days, so even accounting for delays in testing and reporting, it would seem a spike in COVID-19 cases due to in-person voting should have showed up by now if it were going to occur. 

So far, there’s no evidence of a spike

“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.

There is still a case to be made that it would have been prudent for Wisconsin’s legislature and governor to agree to postpone the election given the uncertainty of how transmissible the virus is, the fact that at-risk populations may have been scared away from voting in-person, and the fact that there were many people who requested absentee ballots and did not receive them in time to have them counted.

And there is also obviously a strong case to be made that more should be done to allow absentee voting in November.

But the push to postpone Wisconsin’s April 7 elections was very different from the decision made by Ohio governor Mike DeWine to postpone Ohio’s March 17 Democratic presidential primary. DeWine only had a few days to make a decision just as the crisis began, and, unlike Wisconsin, there was not a statewide election for constitutionally-held office on the ballot.

Wisconsin governor Tony Evers waited until the weekend before the April 7 vote to call for postponing the election. He issued an executive order the day before the election to postpone it — an action he had previously said would be illegal.

Allowing a governor to unilaterally cancel election for a constitutionally held office at the last minute due to panic about the coronavirus could have set a terrible precedent for the November elections.

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