UWO economists link COVID-19 spread to in-person voting

People wait to vote at Green Bay West High School. April 7, 2020. (WBAY Photo)
People wait to vote at Green Bay West High School. April 7, 2020. (WBAY Photo)(WBAY)
Published: May. 18, 2020 at 1:04 PM CDT
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Some University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh economists say they've found "a significant association between in-person voting and the spread of COVID-19 two to three weeks after Wisconsin’s primary election on April 7."

The research was led by UWO economists Chad Cotti, Bryan Engelhardt and Joshua Foster in collaboration with Ball State University. The research was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

to view the study.

“Our results confirm the Wisconsin Department of Health Services findings on the link between the spread of COVID-19 and voting using testing and tracing methods,” Engelhardt said. “However, the tracing investigation undertaken was not comprehensive, and our results indicate a much larger potential relationship.”

"Counties that had more in-person voters per location—with all else being equal—had a higher rate of positive COVID-19 tests than counties with relatively fewer in-person voters," reads a conclusion from the study.

“Furthermore, we find a consistent negative relationship between absentee voting and the rate of positive COVID-19 tests. Similar to patterns with in-person voting, this association appears two to three weeks after the election and persists across a number of specification tests, but it is not observed in the week prior to the election,” Engelhardt said.

The researchers hope their findings will spur an expansion of polling places in Wisconsin and an increase in absentee voting. A Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling overturned a last minute attempt by the Gov. Tony Evers administration to delay the election.

“Given these results, it may be prudent that policy makers and election clerks take steps to expand the number of polling locations or encourage absentee voting for future elections during the pandemic,” Engelhardt said.

Due to concerns over a potential shortage of poll workers and safety, some communities opted to consolidate polling locations. Green Bay opened in-person polling locations at West High School and East High School only. People waited in line until midnight to vote. The decision would be much criticized, but the city council declined to open an investigation into how it was handled.

Long lines were also reported in Milwaukee.

Brown County Public Health Strategist Claire Paprocki said her department was unable to link in-person voting to an outbreak in COVID-19 cases.

"I have not seen that report," Paprocki said of the UWO-led study. "In our contact tracing and investigations we asked very specific questions: Did you vote? How did you vote? Were you a polling volunteer? Plus conversations that come from asking questions. We asked people who voted in an election. We didn't see an 'outbreak' from the election thus far," Paprocki said Monday.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said 52 people in Wisconsin tested positive after voting in person or working at the polls. However, those people also reported other possible exposures, according to Wisconsin Emergency Management spokesman Andrew Beckett.

That means there they were unable to conclusively determine that the exposure happened at the polls.

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