CBS 58 Investigates: Safely voting in person during a pandemic

CBS 58 Investigates: Safely voting in person during a pandemic

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Early voting begins next week, as COVID-19 rages across the state.

It means tens of thousands of people will once again head to the polls during a pandemic.

Elections officials have made major changes since April to make in-person voting safer.

Health studies after the April election are mixed. Some found there was no spike in cases connected to the election as many feared.

Another study found more in-person voting led to more cases in the weeks after.

"We do know there were high-risk settings where people were closer together, not wearing masks, where they were crowded together closer than six feet," said University of Wisconsin Madison Professor Emeritus Patrick Remington.   

Remington set out five requirements to safely vote in a recent federal court case. His big theme -- dilute the virus.

"Dilution is the solution," said Remington.

First, Remington said have more polling places, not fewer.

"We'll be able to have more physical distancing and fewer people in the same area at the same time," said Remington.

Milwaukee will see the biggest change from April, going back to 170 polling places from five. Waukesha has also returned to a regular number of polling places.

"It makes more sense to spread this out during the pandemic, so that's the game plan going into November," said Waukesha Clerk/Treasurer Gina Kozlik.

Second, Remington wants polling places to have their air circulation systems running, even if the heat isn't on. Kozlik said her fire station polls have that covered.

"If it's a nice day, we're going to be opening up a bay door just to get some fresh air in the polling location," said Kozlik.

Voters have heard Remington's three other requirements for months now. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and stay home if you're sick.

"We worked with the state to acquire really a tremendous amount of PPE for the municipalities," said Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson.

County clerks like Christenson have ordered and stockpiled cleaning supplies from the state.

"I believe we ordered something along the lines of 65,000 pens," said Christenson.

CBS 58 Investigates reviewed state records showing clerks in our area ordered nearly 500 gallons of hand sanitizer, 3,700 rolls of paper towels, and 28,000 face masks.

"Face masks will be provided to poll workers, people that are coming in to vote are asked to have face masks, each municipality has additional face masks if somebody forgets theirs or it breaks," said Christenson.

Remington said the huge increase in absentee voting will also help dilute the virus, because fewer people will need to go to the polls to cast their ballot.

"I voted absentee," said Remington.

He has one major concern though.

"I have friends and colleagues who got the phone call, 'I regret to inform you you've been exposed to somebody who's been diagnosed, you're hereby quarantined,'" said Remington.

He said as the virus rages, voters waiting until Election Day to cast their ballot run the risk of getting quarantined before they can vote.

"We're up to 2.5 percent of Wisconsin's population, some communities are up to four to five percent of the population," said Remington.

Voters still have options. Early voting starts Oct. 20. Local clerks set their own times. The last day for most voters to request an absentee ballot through the mail is Oct. 29.

With the virus raging, its best to have a plan, and maybe even a backup. 819,000 people voted through the mail in 2016.

So far this election cycle, 821,000 have already done so.

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