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Wisconsin is scheduled to vote today. How will the pandemic affect turnout?

The state’s push to expand early and mail-in voting probably won’t increase black, Hispanic or Democratic votes

On Tuesday, April 7, Wisconsin is scheduled to vote. With the coronavirus still raging, state lawmakers of both parties have for weeks been urging voters to cast ballots early or absentee to help contain the pandemic.

Some leaders are trying to make those options easier. For instance, the capital city of Madison offered curbside early voting through Saturday.

On Monday, Gov. Tony Evers (D) postponed the election until June via an executive order, but an appeal from Republican lawmakers to the Wisconsin Supreme Court resulted in the court striking down Evers’s order. The election will go on as scheduled.

Would any of these efforts change who ends up casting ballots?

The coronavirus pandemic is an extraordinary public health crisis, and we can’t know how it will affect voting. But our team’s research on the 2018 midterm elections suggests that the groups that usually face more barriers to voting — in particular, poor people and racial and ethnic minorities — do not tend to benefit from early and absentee voting.

How we did our research

In 2018, we launched a two-wave panel survey of adults in Wisconsin. In the first wave, we interviewed 2,000 Wisconsinites between Oct. 24 and Nov. 1, 2018. In wave two, conducted from Feb. 23 to Feb. 28, 2019, we re-interviewed 1,016 of our original sample. The representative samples were drawn by LHK Partners, a national survey firm, by telephone and online.

In addition to a variety of demographic questions, we asked people whether they voted, whether they voted early and whether they voted absentee. We also asked how long it took to commute to their polling place and how long they waited in line to vote. When lines get too long, evidence suggests at least some would-be voters give up and don’t vote. Similar evidence suggests more distance from one’s polling place also discourages voting.

Voting takes longer for Hispanic and black voters

Political scientist Stephen Pettigrew’s research has found that between 2006 and 2014, the average nonwhite U.S. voter waited twice as long in line to vote as the average white voter. Our analysis in Wisconsin found Hispanic voters spent about 12 minutes in line to vote — nearly twice as long as non-Hispanic voters — after controlling for age, gender, income, education, geographic location, party identification and political interest. Black voters spent slightly over nine minutes getting to the polls, 23 percent longer than nonblack voters, all other things being equal.

Of course, all other things are not equal. As political scientists Natalie Masuoka and Jane Junn suggest, researchers’ assumptions about the “average” tends to reflect the experiences of white people. For example, our analysis also found higher-income voters spend less time commuting and waiting in line compared with low-income voters. Since the average voter in our sample is white, this doesn’t tell us how being a poor black voter or a wealthy Hispanic voter, for example, affects voting experiences.

When we account for variation within racial and ethnic groups, our results change in important ways. Higher-income black voters spend less time commuting to the polls than poorer black voters. However, higher-income Hispanic voters did not spend any less time in line than lower-income Hispanic voters. In fact, Hispanic voters spend closer to half an hour in line, on average, regardless of whether their incomes are high or low.

Why might we see these disparities? It could be that areas with more minorities are allocated fewer, more poorly staffed and funded polling locations. That means longer lines. Wisconsin’s strict voter ID laws may disproportionately affect Hispanic voters, who are more likely to have their citizenship documents scrutinized even if they are wealthy.

Our findings are consistent with Pettigrew’s findings from previous elections: On average, black and Hispanic Wisconsin voters have a harder time casting their ballots than the state’s white voters.

Who uses early and absentee voting?

Some scholars argue that voting by mail and early voting may help get rid of the gap between how long white voters, on the one hand, and black and Hispanic voters, on the other, have to wait in line to vote.

To find out whether that’s true in Wisconsin, we asked people whether they voted early and whether they voted with absentee ballots. Older and more educated voters were the ones who took advantage of these voting options. Black and Hispanic Wisconsinites were not significantly more likely to use early and absentee voting mechanisms.

Some research suggests Democrats are more likely than Republicans to vote early. We found no support in our data for claims that party identification had any statistical influence on the groups of voters who voted early or submitted an absentee ballot.

What might this mean for voting during the pandemic?

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, people in black neighborhoods are dying of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, at higher rates than people in nonblack neighborhoods. Although our data doesn’t comprehensively represent all black and Hispanic Wisconsin voters, it does suggest that the pandemic may make it less likely for these groups to vote compared with other voters, given they face a longer commute to begin with and are not more likely to take advantage of early and absentee voting opportunities.

This pandemic is challenging electoral administration around the world. In Wisconsin, more than 100 communities have no poll workers available to administer the elections on Tuesday. With governors and state legislatures implementing myriad policies to make voting more accessible by mail, that puts more pressure on those validating and counting mail-in ballots.

Jordan M. Foley (@FoleyJ0) is a PhD candidate and Knight Graduate Fellow at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Michael W. Wagner (@prowag) is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison whose next book, “Mediated Democracy: Politics, the News and Citizenship in the 21st Century” (with Mallory Perryman) will be published later this year by CQ Press.

Lewis A. Friedland (@lewfriedland) is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of “Public Journalism: Past and Future” (Kettering Foundation Press, 2003).

Dhavan V. Shah (@dvshah) is the Maier-Bascom Professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author (with Douglas McLeod) most recently of “News Frames and National Security: Covering Big Brother (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Katherine J. Cramer (@KathyJCramer) is the Natalie C. Holton Professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker” (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Ceri Hughes (@acerihughes) is a visiting lecturer at Brunel University.