An epidemiological study by top scientists threw cold water on calls for universal mail-in voting to avoid long lines at the polls and the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.
The report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that despite long lines in Wisconsin’s April 7 primary elections — at the peak of the outbreak — there was no spike in new cases, hospitalizations or deaths.
The battleground state was the first in the nation to hold a primary after stay-at-home orders were issued in late March. The voting was marred by hourslong waits at the polls.
The CDC study of the impact on voters in Milwaukee revealed that 33% fewer deaths were reported three weeks after the elections than earlier in April.
“After a peak in hospitalizations during the last week in March, hospitalizations gradually declined,” said the analysis, stressing that the CDC’s guidance urging physical distancing, cleaning and disinfecting at the polls appeared to have worked.
The CDC report said a longer voting period and increased number of polling locations in November could help reduce the number of people at the polls and the risk of transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that is blamed for the deaths of more than 163,000 people in the U.S.
“The data from Milwaukee provide preliminary evidence to suggest mitigation strategies were effective, but more observations are necessary,” said Eva Leidman, who leads the CDC’s Wisconsin COVID-19 Response Field Team.
According to the CDC study, however, the percentage of voters who cast mail-in ballots increased fifteenfold for the primary and the number of polling places in Milwaukee dropped from 181 in 2016 to just five in April, resulting in long lines.
Allies of President Trump, who is campaigning against mail-in voting for the November elections, said the evidence was clear-cut.
“We can stand in line in the grocery store and many other places — the airport, whatever — but we can’t stand in line for balloting with the proper distancing?” said Curt Levey, president of the conservative legal group Committee for Justice and a lawyer on Mr. Trump’s advisory board Lawyers for Trump.
“If we can endure whatever risks there are in standing in line for groceries, we certainly ought to be able to stand in line and endure those risks for voting,” he said.
Another hurdle for in-person voting during the coronavirus crisis is that many poll workers are senior citizens, who are at a high risk for severe cases of COVID-19. Many poll workers have not been willing to volunteer during primaries this year, and it remains doubtful that enough younger volunteers will come forward.
In Wisconsin, meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee went to court to oppose some of the state’s restrictions on voting by mail.
Democrats accuse the Republican Party of trying to make it harder to vote because primary turnout was strong across the country for Democrats.
The risk of virus transmission in long voter lines has been a chief complaint of Democratic leaders, including Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, who signed legislation this week to institute universal mail-in voting.
“This bill will help prevent Nevadans from experiencing the long lines at polling locations they faced during the primary election, which will protect their safety, safeguard their right to make their voices heard, and help reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Mr. Sisolak tweeted.
The Trump campaign has challenged Nevada’s move in court, and Republicans argue it is just a way to force more mail-in voting, which they think is intended to benefit the Democratic Party.
“It’s crystal clear that Donald Trump and the RNC are going to do everything they can to block access to voting — given Trump’s failed response to this pandemic, how he’s tanked the economy and how he’s out of touch with reality. That’s the only way they can win,” said Chris Meagher, deputy communications director for the DNC.
Marge Baker, executive vice president for the People for the American Way, said it isn’t about eliminating in-person voting but limiting it and having the necessary resources to make it safe during the COVID-19 era.
“The important point here is not whether one activity is more dangerous. It’s that we make full use of the opportunity for utilizing an option for voting that preserves our rights and is unquestionably safer in this pandemic environment. Why wouldn’t we want to do that? A number of states and the U.S. military have relied on mail-in ballots for years. All the evidence is that they are safe and reliable,” she said.
Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — hold all of their elections by mail.
Democrats have been claiming long lines disenfranchise minority voters since the 2004 elections, suggesting the pandemic gives the left more fuel, said Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation.
“They are rewrapping the same excuse with pandemic tone around it. That’s nothing new,” he said.