At Least 52 People Involved in Wisconsin's Controversial in-Person Election Tested Positive for COVID-19
"You can come to a polling place and do it safely. You have the ability to do curbside voting," one official previously said. People have to use their own best judgment"
At least 52 people in Wisconsin have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, after participating in the state’s controversial election earlier this month, according to the state’s Department of Health Services.
The Wisconsin DHS confirmed the case count with PEOPLE on Tuesday, citing the individuals tested positive in the two weeks after either voting in the election or working at a state polling place.
However, according to the Associated Press, it’s not clear that the new cases were from Election Day as many of the infected “reported other ways they could have been exposed.”
On Monday, Wisconsin reported 36 people had tested positive for the virus after participating in the state’s primary election before the number increased Tuesday.
Wisconsin DHS Secretary Andrea Palm told the AP on Wednesday that the “vast majority” of the coronavirus cases linked to the April 7 election have “already likely come to the surface.”
Health experts believe the virus begins showing symptoms in a person within 14 days of an individual being infected.
The few dozen additional cases linked to Wisconsin’s election are either far too many — proving the recklessness of holding in-person voting with other options — or gratefully few, showing that it is possible to hold elections safely amid the virus.
“They sought to exploit a global pandemic to fit their narrative and failed,” Mark Jefferson, a state Republican Party official, told the AP.
The split largely reflects the partisan divide at work, given that Democrats unsuccessfully tried to delay the election while Republicans pushed ahead with it in what was seen as an attempt, in part, to ensure the win of a key judge there. (The judge, supported by conservatives, lost.)
Despite those efforts by Democratic lawmakers, the state opted to continue with its election on April 7 after the Republican effort to block the Democrats’ call to postpone that vote, citing health concerns over in-person activity
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, issued an executive order on April 6 — the night before the election — in an attempt to delay the election, which included the presidential primary and other contests.
However, the state’s Supreme Court struck down the order and ruled the election must go on as originally scheduled. The courts also ruled against a move to extend the deadline for mail-in voting.
The state’s decision to move forward with its election drew widespread criticism amid the pandemic, including from former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Health officials have been urging people to avoid public and large gatherings unless for essential activity, given how contagious the virus is.
The episode illustrated the issues around how to conduct elections amid the spread of the coronavirus.
“Today, Wisconsin voters had to choose between making their voice heard and keeping themselves and their family safe. No American should ever have to make that choice,” Mrs. Obama tweeted on April 7. “We must do better to ensure voting is safe for all voters.”
Mrs. Obama’s nonprofit organization When We All Vote aims to increase voter participation. Other mail-in voting advocates voiced similar concern over Wisconsin’s decision to still hold its election this month.
Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the nonprofit organization Vote at Home which advocates for more vote-by-mail access, told PEOPLE this week the state should have bolstered its mail-in voting abilities or delayed its primary election like other states have across the country in recent weeks.
“Clearly, a better decision by political leaders would have been to mail everyone a ballot up front so that they didn’t have so many people wait in those long lines and expose themselves to COVID-19 and getting sick,” McReynolds says. “That would’ve been a better process. Also, moving the election date back a few weeks would’ve been a better decision than what they chose to do.”
As with much else about daily life, the coronavirus pandemic has widely disrupted the Nov. 3 presidential election, which is about six months away.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, canceled all scheduled campaign events in mid-March and has since been confined to campaigning online from his home in Delaware because of nationwide social distancing efforts and stay-at-home orders in most states.
At the same time, incumbent President Donald Trump had been using his daily coronavirus task force briefings from the White House to replicate some of the most common features of his campaign events: arguing with journalists, mocking his political rivals (including Biden) and addressing the public to tout what he sees as his own accomplishments while defending himself from criticism.
Wisconsin held its primary election as originally scheduled, but 15 other states reportedly postponed their primaries due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And then on Monday, New York canceled its primary outright because of the pandemic, citing the fact that Biden no longer had any challengers for the Democratic nomination.
“At a time when the goal is to avoid unnecessary social contact, our conclusion was that there was no purpose in holding a beauty contest primary that would marginally increase the risk to both voters and poll workers,” Douglas Kellner, the co-chair of the New York Board of Elections, told CNN.
Biden has all but won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the primary race on April 8 — one day after Biden won the Wisconsin primary and extended his delegate lead even further over his last remaining opponent.
Wearing full-body protective gear, including a face mask and gloves, Wisconsin’s Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, told reporters on April 7 that citizens were “incredibly safe” to go out and vote.
“You can come to a polling place and do it safely. You have the ability to do curbside voting,” Vos said, according to a video interview posted by The Journal Times. “People have to use their own best judgment.”
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.