Topics: COVID-19, Research

May 18, 2020

Researchers at Ball State University and University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh have found a significant association between in-person voting and the spread of COVID-19 two to three weeks after Wisconsin’s primary on April 7.

The Relationship between In-Person Voting, Consolidated Polling Locations, and Absentee Voting on COVID-19: Evidence from the Wisconsin Primary,” pointed out that the consolidation of polling locations, and relatively fewer absentee votes, increased positive testing rates.

Wisconsin conduced a major election for state positions and presidential preferences for both major parties when the state was under a stay-at-home order. News reports showed pictures of long lines of voters due to fewer polling locations and suggested that the in-person election may have increased spread the virus.

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

“Specifically, results show that counties which had more in-person voters per location — all else being equal — had a higher rate of positive COVID-19 tests than counties with relatively 10 fewer in-person voters,” he said. “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.”

In the weeks leading up the primary, the overwhelming majority of clerks who made changes chose to consolidate locations, which effectively led to increases in voter density per location.

"The estimates are to some extent driven by variation in voter density,” Nesson said. “These increases arrive when one would anticipate the effect of in-person voting on infection spread to manifest, and they are statistically significant at the 5% or 1% level across different specifications.”

The researchers noted that due to the findings, it may be prudent that policymakers and election clerks take steps to either expand the number of polling locations or encourage absentee voting for future elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic.