A higher percentage of voters cast ballots in person, rather than mailing them in absentee, during the second Wisconsin election held in just five weeks amid a stay-at-home order to prevent spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 coronavirus.
It’s another sign that people’s fears about leaving home amid the pandemic may be waning, as both state and national polls show growing impatience about stay-at-home orders. Polls have also shown growing skepticism among Republicans to the orders. That could have played into the larger in-person turnout in Tuesday’s special election for a congressional seat, which Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Minocqua, won by about 14 points over Democrat Tricia Zunker.
Unlike last month’s statewide election, Tuesday’s was limited to a largely rural congressional district that’s been less affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than more urban parts of the state. Only about 2% of the state’s confirmed cases are in the sprawling, 18,500-square-mile district.
Turnout was on par with turnout for the statewide April 7 presidential primary and spring general election. But in last month’s election, which went ahead amid loud criticism about compromised safety and unsuccessful legal fights to delay it, 71% of voters cast ballots absentee. Just 48% voted absentee in Tuesday’s special election. That’s down from about 56% who voted absentee in the congressional district in last month’s election.
“There was no concern at all,” David Murdock, 68, of Wausau, said about voting in person on Tuesday. “It was far safer than going to, for instance, one of the convenience stores.”
Murdock, a Republican, was one of many voters and poll workers who expressed confidence about their safety Tuesday. Many wore masks, stood far apart from others and were careful to use hand sanitizer and take other steps to stay safe.
Scott Pearson, 64, a business coach who lives in Hudson, said a poll worker met him outside the building and made him wait until others left before letting him in. Another worker inside directed him to a hand-washing station. Poll workers in the voting room were behind glass shields. Some of the workers wore masks, he said. Others did not. Voters were allowed to keep their pens.
He said he encountered only a few other people in the building when voting in person in April so he felt it would be safe to vote in-person there again.
“I was feeling really comfortable,” he said. “The experience (of voting in-person) gives you pride, rather than filling out a ballot and putting it in the mail.”
Wallace Page, a 59-year-old software developer, said he felt “fairly safe” voting in person on Tuesday.
“It wasn’t very crowded so social distancing wasn’t a problem,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to be OK.”
There was intense criticism, primarily from Democrats, ahead of Wisconsin’s April 7 election. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers tried to cancel in-person voting but was blocked by the Republican Legislature and state Supreme Court.
Long lines to vote in Milwaukee drew national attention, but in the weeks since there has been no surge in COVID-19 cases tied to the election. State health officials said 71 people who tested positive for the virus said they had been at the polls, but many had other exposures and it was impossible to know where exactly they contracted the virus.
Evers didn’t try to change Tuesday’s special election. He said clerks had more time to prepare and the rural nature of the district made it less of a risk than the statewide election, where polling places in Milwaukee were reduced from nearly 200 to just five because of a shortage of poll workers.
Turnout in Tuesday’s election was around 33%, just slightly below 34% in the spring election.
Based on preliminary numbers, about 191,500 people out of nearly 588,000 who were of voting age cast ballots Tuesday. About 100,500 voted in person at the polls, while more than 91,000 voted absentee.
Tiffany’s margin of victory was less than the 20-point margin that President Donald Trump carried the district in 2016, leading Democrats to say despite the loss it’s a sign of Democratic momentum. Republicans say the win shows Republicans remain strong in the district that covers all or parts of 26 counties.