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Voters wait in line outside Riverside High School in Milwaukee during the April 7, 2020, election. Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Voters wait in line outside Riverside High School in Milwaukee during the April 7, 2020, election. Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Voters wait in line outside Riverside High School in Milwaukee during the April 7, 2020, election. Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Eric Litke
By Eric Litke August 6, 2020

Election commission member wrong about media coverage of April election

If Your Time is short

  • The two-page CDC report didn’t exactly break any new ground - media outlets in Wisconsin and elsewhere had reported for months that the April 7 election didn’t generate any spike in COVID-19 cases.

  • At the time of this tweet, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had already posted a story on the CDC finding. Other state news orgs posted stories in the hours after.

  • The coverage delay was likely due in large part to the report begin released on a Friday.

  • Of the three stats Knudson attributed to the CDC that the media was supposedly “silent” on, only one was actually referenced in the CDC report, and that was summarized incorrectly.

A member of the Wisconsin Election Commission unhappy with perceived lack of proper COVID-19 media coverage took to Twitter to voice his frustrations.

Dean Knudson, one of six commissioners who oversee the state election system, focused on a July 31, 2020, report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that confirmed a conclusion widely reported earlier — the mid-pandemic election of April 7, 2020, didn’t generate any spike in COVID-19 cases here.

"CDC reports, but media silent on truth about Apr 7 Wisc election: No lines at 99.9% polling places, over 70% absentee, no evidence in-person voting risky," Knudson’s tweeted on Aug. 3, 2020

He went on to link to coverage of the CDC study by the National Review.

Knudson — a former Republican lawmaker appointed to his post by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester — is voicing an allegation that’s become routine in all corners of the political universe: That his preferred viewpoint is being muzzled due to selective coverage by "the media."

Let’s check the tape.

Knudson’s claim misattributes, overstates

We’re focusing on Knudson’s claim about media coverage, but we’ll take a quick moment to examine what he says the media is missing. He highlighted three statistics that he said were in the CDC report, but the media was "silent" on.

"No lines at 99.9% of polling places" — The CDC report only examined data from Milwaukee, and it didn’t make any reference to lines. Knudson said in an email he added this based on an assumption that there were no lines at any polling places outside of Milwaukee and Green Bay, where long lines generated extensive media coverage. He did not cite any survey or research actually establishing that no other locations had lines.

"Over 70% absentee" — The CDC report, looking only at Milwaukee, noted 68% of Milwaukee votes were cast by absentee ballot. But Knudson’s tweet references Wisconsin, not Milwaukee. And the statewide rate of absentee voting was actually a bit higher at 74.4%, according to the election commission. The massive jump in ballots cast this way has been extensively covered.

"No evidence in-person voting risky" — This is the lone element Knudson cites that is referenced in the CDC report, but his summary is not accurate. The report didn’t say in-person voting wasn’t "risky" — that’s a general statement that would apply to all in-person elections. The report simply looked at the data in the wake of the April 7 election and tentatively attributed the lack of impact to mitigation measures at polling locations. It said, "No clear increase in cases, hospitalizations, or deaths was observed after the election, suggesting possible benefit of the mitigation strategies, which limited in-person voting and aimed to ensure safety of the polling sites open on election day."

Now on to the media coverage.

Election impact on COVID-19 was well-covered 

Knudson’s claim of no media coverage — first highlighted by Associated Press reporter Scott Bauer —  hits a bit of a logical hurdle immediately since Knudson’s tweet included a link to a news account of the CDC report, but let’s assume he’s referring more to in-state media.

Featured Fact-check

The two-page CDC report labeled "Notes from the Field" wasn’t exactly breaking news. Media outlets in Wisconsin have been reporting for months that the COVID-19 trends after the election weren’t anywhere near a spike. 

Here’s a sampling:

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline on April 22, 2020, was, "Two weeks after election, COVID-19 cases have not spiked in Wisconsin but experts urge caution about conclusions." A week later, the paper used a similar headline as more data became available: "In-person voting didn't lead to spike in COVID-19, but concerns remain." The Associated Press took a similar approach May 6: "No spike, but no certainty on fallout of Wisconsin election." And a Wisconsin State Journal headline on April 25 made the point as well: "No bump in COVID-19 rates after Wisconsin's April 7 election, study says."

The Journal Sentinel also noted in a May 11 story that a total of 71 people tested positive for COVID-19 after voting or working the polls April 7, according to the state Department of Health Services. It noted those cases accounted for less than 4% of the positive tests in the two weeks after the election.

Meanwhile, PolitiFact Wisconsin posted a series of fact checks correcting errant claims of a surge.

We rated a viral Facebook post False on April 21 that claimed a "surge" based on shoddy data work. We rated False a claim from state Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, on April 24 when he said a jump in COVID-19 cases was due to the election (again due to poor data analysis). And we rated a viral video from One America News as Pants on Fire on May 12 when it asserted without offering evidence that "The mainstream media pretended there was a deadly surge in COVID cases thanks to Wisconsinites voting."

Knudson said in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin he was most frustrated with the lack of coverage of the CDC report itself.

As noted, numerous prior studies and reports had established the same thing months earlier, so the CDC finding wasn’t breaking any new ground. But it’s also worth noting that the report was released on a Friday, heading into a weekend where staffing across all media organizations drops dramatically.

On Monday, several media outlets did cover the CDC report, including the Journal Sentinel,  the State Journal and several TV stations, including Channel 3000 and WKOW in Madison.

The Journal Sentinel story was posted about 45 minutes before Knudson’s tweet, while the others were posted later in the day. Knudson acknowledged he overlooked the Journal Sentinel story in a Twitter reply.

Our ruling

Knudson said the media was "silent on truth" about the April 7 election, citing lack of coverage of a CDC report.

But news organizations around the state have reported regularly on the COVID-19 trends after the April 7 election — including the lack of any spike attributable to the election.

The CDC report wasn’t immediately covered by many outlets, but that’s explained in part by the timing of the report and in part by its lack of original findings. And the state’s largest news organization had written about the CDC report before Knudson tweeted.

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Dean Knudson, tweet, Aug. 3, 2020

CDC, Morbidity and mortality report - Notes from the Field, July 31, 2020

Scott Bauer, twitter, Aug. 3, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Two weeks after election, COVID-19 cases have not spiked in Wisconsin but experts urge caution about conclusions, April 22, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, In-person voting didn't lead to spike in COVID-19, but concerns remain, April 29, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Live coronavirus updates: Milwaukee County suburbs can reopen all remaining businesses on Friday, May 11, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, CDC finds no spike in coronavirus cases in Milwaukee after the April election, Aug. 3, 2020

Wisconsin State Journal, No bump in COVID-19 rates after Wisconsin's April 7 election, study says, April 25, 2020

Wisconsin State Journal, No COVID-19 surge in Milwaukee from Wisconsin's April 7 election, CDC says, Aug. 3, 2020

Associated Press, No spike, but no certainty on fallout of Wisconsin election, May 6, 2020

PolitiFact Wisconsin, No proof (yet) of a post-election "surge" in Wisconsin coronavirus cases, April 21, 2020 

PolitiFact Wisconsin, Chris Larson has no basis to connect spike in new coronavirus cases to election, April 24, 2020

PolitiFact Wisconsin, No, the media did not "pretend there was a deadly surge in COVID cases" after Wisconsin election, May 12, 2020

Wisconsin Election Commission, WEC Releases Analysis of Absentee Voting in April 7 Spring Election, May 18, 2020

Channel 3000, CDC report: Data from Wisconsin’s April election shows guidelines lower COVID-19 risk during elections, Aug. 3, 2020

WKOW, CDC: No spike in COVID-19 cases after Wis. spring election, Aug. 3, 2020

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Election commission member wrong about media coverage of April election

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