August 6, 2020

CDC: Voting in Milwaukee Does Not Appear to Have Increased SARS-CoV-2 Transmission

Data suggest that Milwaukee’s April 7 primary election did not lead to an increase in cases of COVID-19 in the city, according to a new report from CDC. The election was the first in the United States to incorporate in-person voting following the imposition of restrictions such as business closures and stay-at-home orders during the early days of the pandemic. According to CDC, city data indicate that 572 COVID-19 cases were reported during April 9–­21, the expected incubation period for individuals who were infected at polls, compared to 693 cases during March 27–April 8.

Milwaukee followed some of CDC’s recommendations for preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission at polling locations, the report states. Approximately 500 poll workers and inspectors were joined at polling locations by personnel from the city health department and the Wisconsin National Guard to support mitigation efforts. Absentee voting, which was encouraged prior to the election through public messaging, increased significantly over the previous election period, according to data from the Milwaukee Election Commission. Compared to voting in the spring of 2016, the percentage of absentee mail-in ballots increased fifteenfold and early voting increased 160 percent, while the number of people who voted in person on election day decreased 78 percent.

Milwaukee also reduced the number of polling locations from 181 to just five. CDC’s guidance for preventing transmission during in-person voting recommends increasing the number of polling locations. The agency also recommends physical distancing, the wearing of face coverings, cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and other practices for managing crowds, as well as voting by mail.

The April 7 election was a statewide presidential primary in which voters also cast ballots for a justice of the state supreme court, judges for courts of appeals, and circuit court judges for several counties. The CDC report does not address SARS-CoV-2 transmission outside of Milwaukee.

“These data provide preliminary evidence that CDC’s interim guidance for ensuring various voting options . . . lower COVID-19 transmission risk during elections,” the report reads. “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.”