Study co-authored by Ball State professors explores link between voting, COVID-19 spread in Wisconsin

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INDIANAPOLIS – A study co-authored by two professors at Ball State University shows a connection between in-person voting and the spread of COVID-19 after a primary election. This research focused on the election in Wisconsin that was held in April.

Indiana moved to allow all Hoosiers to mail their ballots for the June primary but it is still one of a few states in the country not expanding mail-in voting for November.

“It seems like there is a risk of in-person voting during the pandemic,” said Associate Professor of Economics at Ball State, Erik Nesson.

Professor Nesson, Ball State Assistant Economics Professor Paul Niekamp and several others found a significant association between in-person voting and the spread of COVID-19 two to three weeks after the April primary in Wisconsin. Their research also suggests in-person voting was related to about 700 more COVID-19 cases in the state during the weeks following the election.

At that time, masks were not mandated in Wisconsin.

“I think the big takeaway is that it does seem like the Wisconsin election and specifically the polling, the consolidation of the polling locations, did lead to some spread of the novel coronavirus,” said Nesson.

Governor Holcomb on Thursday told CBS4 he had not seen the study but he promised to review it. Holcomb said he has not heard of a single case linked to polling locations in Indiana but admitted it is “easier said than done to trace these back.”

He promised to talk to Wisconsin’s Governor Tony Evers about this study.

“I don’t want the thought process to be I am afraid to go vote in person. It is safe to vote in person for 28 days before and on the final day, Election Day,” said Holcomb.

During his weekly COVID-19 update on Wednesday, Holcomb said Indiana needs to have an in-person voting option. It is concerning to some after seeing long lines outside polling locations during the June primary election when there were far fewer polling places open.

The Marion County Clerk’s Office said they will have significantly more than the 22 locations they had open during the primary election.

“What we learned from that is we could have had more voting sites,” said Governor Holcomb.

When Indiana allowed all Hoosiers to mail their ballots for the primary election, county clerks were overwhelmed by the number of absentee ballot applications. While explaining his support for in-person voting, Governor Holcomb said the state deserves timely election results.

“We received a minimum of 80,000 absentee applications in that four week window and prior to 2020, the most absentee applications we received in the presidential election cycle was well under 10,000,” said Hollis.

To vote absentee-by-mail in Indiana, a voter must have a reason to request an absentee vote-by-mail ballot such as being over the age of 65. When he was asked whether there would be a question on the absentee ballot applications regarding COVID-19 concerns, Governor Holcomb said he is waiting for an opinion on a pending lawsuit before the attorney general. One of the reasons to request an absentee ballot includes being “confined due to illness or injury” on election day.

The Marion County Clerk’s Office said the county election board does not verify the reason a voter selects when they submit an absentee application.

“If you were to apply to vote absentee by mail and you were to selected any of the 12 reasons, we will verify that you are a registered voter and we will get you a ballot,” said Russell Hollis, Deputy Director of Marion County Clerk’s Office.

The Marion County Clerk’s Office will have more people working on absentee applications beginning as early as next week. As of Thursday, the office has received around 8,400 absentee applications for the general election which is more than they usually receive in an entire election cycle.

“If you want to vote by mail, do not wait,” said Hollis. “We want to flatten the curve of the large number of absentee applications so that we can better serve the voters. They can apply today to vote absentee by mail.”

Changes to the election process went through the Indiana Election Commission for the June primary. They do not have any meetings scheduled at this time. A spokesperson for Secretary of State Connie Lawson said she will provide an update in the future once they have more details to share.

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