Voting booths

new study published today showed a strong correlation between last month's in-person primary election and an increase in coronavirus infections

While counties with the most in-person polling places on April 7 saw large case spikes in the following weeks, counties that used widespread absentee balloting saw the opposite effect. 

new study published today showed a strong correlation between last month's in-person primary election in Wisconsin and an increase in coronavirus infections in the state, bolstering calls for a robust national vote-by-mail system for November.

Researchers at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Ball State University found clear spikes in cases in counties that had the most in-person voting locations on April 7 and found that far fewer new cases were confirmed in counties with widespread absentee ballot voting.

Though public health experts had urged against holding the election due to the risks, the in-person voting was pushed forward by state Republicans and a last-minute ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The research proves, wrote journalist David Sirota, that the decision to move ahead with in-person voting "ended up spreading a deadly pandemic."

By the numbers

The economists who conducted the study examined the number of new cases in each of Wisconsin's 72 counties and found that more cases were reported in the two to three weeks after the election — the incubation period for COVID-19 — in counties with the highest numbers of in-person polling locations.

Robin Vos

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos appealed directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to force in-person voting despite the pandemic.

"When the average number of votes per voting location increases by 100 (a 0.10 unit change), the rate of positive tests in a county rises by roughly 0.034 to 0.035 (3.4 to 3.5 percentage points) two to three weeks after the election," the researchers wrote.

Meanwhile, the opposite effect was shown in counties that utilized absentee balloting.

"The estimates from absentee ballot voting suggest that every unit increase in absentee ballots (an additional 10,000 absentee ballots), lead to decreases in the positive rate of between 0.07 and 0.08 percentage points two to three weeks after the election," the study reads.

The research was released two days after a spokeswoman for the  said that the agency's official count of COVID-19 cases linked to the election stood at 71.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called on the Republican-led state Legislature to cancel the in-person election and allow voters to cast absentee ballots. Every other state had rescheduled its April elections to protect voters’ health.

But Wisconsin’s Republican leadership, led by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, rejected the idea. Vos appealed directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to halt Evers’ plan.

The court has a 5-2 conservative Republican majority, and its decision to force the in-person election was a foregone conclusion, even though a lack of poll workers had forced the closure of most polling places. In Milwaukee, for example, the usual 180 polling places was reduced to five, making for very large crowds.

Most, if not all, of the state’s right-wing justices have taken large campaign donations from the business groups and PACs that were pushing back against both postponing the election and allowing time for more voters to cast absentee-ballots.

Republicans as a whole believe that large turnouts favor Democrats — a belief that has generated massive efforts to suppress voter turnout over the past decade in red states.

Voting

The research proves, wrote journalist David Sirota, that the decision to move ahead with in-person voting "ended up spreading a deadly pandemic."

But not anticipating the courts’ decisions, tens of thousands of voters had not yet submitted — or even requested — absentee ballots. Evers extended the deadline for absentee voting by one week, but then Republicans balked at that plan as well.

They took that case to the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in their favor just hours before the election.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg warned that the majority’s ruling would "result in massive disenfranchisement" as Wisconsin voters were forced to choose between participating in the democratic process or risking their lives.

An absentee-ballot plan for November?

The economists who authored the health-impact study are urging election officials to consider the widespread use of absentee ballots in November to avoid new spikes in coronavirus cases.

"We find a consistent negative relationship between absentee voting and the rate of positive COVID-19 tests," reads the study. "Given these results, it may be prudent, to the extent possible, that policy makers and election clerks take steps to either expand the number of polling locations or encourage absentee voting for future elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic."

On social media, Harvard University epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding drew attention to the correlation between lower case numbers and more absentee voting.

Sirota noted that the study was released as President Donald Trump claims a vote-by-mail system would invite widespread "voter fraud."

Contrary to Trump's efforts to "manufacture concerns" about absentee balloting, Sirota wrote in his newsletter, "Vote by mail systems have not been plagued by fraud and they do not (prefer) one party over the other."

The study was published days after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers' stay-at-home order, leading the governor to warn that the state will likely see major spikes in coronavirus cases and deaths in the coming weeks.

The state reported its largest single-day increase in cases on Saturday, with 502 new infections.

The decisions regarding reopening the state and moving ahead with last month's election — both made against the advice of experts — show that Wisconsin's Republican Party is putting "politics over public health," wrote Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) on social media. 

Louis Weisberg contributed to this story.

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