MADISON, Wis. (AP) — More than 50 people who voted in person or worked the polls during Wisconsin’s presidential primary this month have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the latest count by state health officials tracking the impact of holding the election in the middle of a pandemic.
It remains unclear how many — if any — of those people contracted the virus at the polls and health officials are still collecting testing and tracing information. But officials say they don’t expect the number of known cases potentially tied to the election to grow substantially.
The “vast majority” of cases tied to the election have “already likely come to the surface,” said Andrea Palm, the state Department of Health Services secretary on Wednesday.
The numbers come as states across the country are struggling with how to hold fair and safe elections during the coronavirus outbreak. Some states, including Ohio on Tuesday, moved to virtually all-mail elections, closing nearly all polling places. Others have just urged voters to cast absentee ballots, while keeping in-person voting an option.
Wisconsin, whose April 7 primary became a symbol of the chaos the virus could wreak on democracy, plans to hold another round of in-person voting on May 12, this time for a special election to fill a vacant congressional district seat. Nebraska will also has a statewide primary on the same day.
Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, concerned about a spike in virus cases, tried to change the April 7 election so that it would be conducted entirely by mail, but he was blocked by the Republican-led Legislature and conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Now, both parties are watching the infection count closely.
Republicans say the relatively low number of potential cases so far proves that warnings that the election would result in a spike in cases were overblown.
“They sought to exploit a global pandemic to fit their narrative and failed,” said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.
Statewide, there have been more than 6,500 confirmed cases and 308 deaths since the outbreak began. Tracking precisely how many cases were contracted at the polls is impossible, as many of the infected reported multiple ways they could have been exposed, health officials said. The number does not account for those who do not show symptoms and are not tested.
The 52 positive cases were people who tested positive in the two weeks after the election — the typical window for showing symptoms after exposure. After May 7, the state will stop asking people who test positive for the virus whether they were at the polls a month earlier because of how much time has passed.
Evers has made no move to alter the special election which is scheduled to occur while a stay-at-home order is still in effect. The order is scheduled to run until May 26, but Republicans have asked the state Supreme Court to block it.
Evers said Wednesday that he was confident the election could be held in a safe way.
Although voters had to wait in long lines on April 7, primarily in Milwaukee, that likely won’t happen with the May 12 special congressional election, where the largest city in the 7th Congressional District is Wausau, which is home to about 40,000 people. That House race is the only one on the ballot, unlike in this month’s election, which featured the presidential primary and a state Supreme Court race.
Election clerks in the district have said they’re ready for the election after they managed to make it through this month’s election despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic. There’s also a push to encourage absentee voting. About 71% of all voters in the April 7 election cast absentee ballots.
The 7th Congressional District covers all or parts of 26 northern and northwestern Wisconsin counties and is the state’s largest congressional district, geographically.
The race pits Democrat Tricia Zunker, president of the Wausau school board, against Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany, who has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. Trump carried the heavily Republican district by 20 percentage points in 2016.
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