CDC report: Voting in Milwaukee fell April 7, but COVID-19 cases didn’t rise

    Voters wait in line at Washington High School (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
    Voters wait in line at Washington High School (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

    The April 7 election doesn’t appear to have sparked a surge in COVID-19 infections in Milwaukee, according to a new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — but it also saw overall voter participation cut nearly in half and close to an 80% drop in in-person voting in the city compared with four years ago.

    The two-page report is in the July 31 edition of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, and was compiled by a team that included Milwaukee Health Department staff and CDC investigators.

    The report looked at confirmed cases of infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 and found “no clear increase” in them during the two-week incubation period after the election. The findings suggest a “possible benefit of the mitigation strategies, which limited in-person voting and aimed to ensure safety of the polling sites open on election day.”

    Lower turnout compared with the spring election in 2016 — also a presidential primary —  may have played a role in the outcome as well, says the report.

    As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Milwaukee saw a steep drop in poll workers and cut the number of polling places for the April 7 election from a typical 181 sites to only five. The voting that did take place shifted sharply from in-person on election day to voting early or voting by mail.

    Out of all of the people who voted in the city, 68% voted by mail — up from 4.1% in 2016. Another 12.2% voted early, which people in Milwaukee could do in person or curbside (submitting their ballot without getting out of their vehicle). By comparison, in 2016, just 4.7% voted early. The share of people voting in person on election day plummeted to 19.8% of all voters, down from 91.2% in 2016.

    Even with the higher use of voting by mail and early voting, the total number of people casting ballots overall fell by 43%, according to the report. That is only 95,168 voters, compared with 168,281 voters in 2016.

    The CDC paper concludes that the Milwaukee data offers “preliminary evidence” that supports CDC guidelines designed to reduce the risk of transmission for the virus responsible for COVID-19. The agency’s preliminary guidelines call for providing a variety of voting options, encouraging physical distancing to keep in-person voters 6 feet apart or more and frequent cleaning and disinfection of surfaces at polling places.

    “Further risk reduction can be achieved by fully implementing CDC interim guidance, which recommends longer voting periods, and other options such as increasing the number of polling locations to reduce the number of voters who congregate indoors in polling locations,” the report concludes.

    In Wisconsin, however, a June 29 federal appeals court ruling has reinstated a two-week limit on early voting that was enacted in 2013 by the Republican-led state Legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker. While the case arose three years ago, long before the pandemic, the decision means that without a change in state law, local governments cannot institute longer early-voting periods for the Nov. 3 election as both Madison and Milwaukee did for the April 7 election — and as the CDC recommends.

    The CDC report also follows a July 29 report from MapLight, a voting rights and election watchdog advocacy group, which warns of “multiple danger points” for the 2020 general election. Those include the potential for the pandemic to depress turnout, along with a number of potential roadblocks to voting by mail that could ensure greater voter participation.

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    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.