Ohio scraps Tuesday’s primary election hours before voting was set to begin

A judge originally denied a request to move the elections to June after a public health emergency was declared

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published March 17, 2020 10:01AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)

The state of Ohio officially delayed its primary elections hours before polls were set to open Tuesday due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, asked a court Monday to postpone the elections until June after declaring a public health emergency but a judge denied his request, according to the Columbus Dispatch. DeWine flouted the court order, announcing that he would instead direct his top health official to order polls closed.

Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton said late Monday that she was ordering "the polling locations in the State of Ohio closed on March 17" in order to "avoid the imminent threat with a high probability of widespread exposure to COVID-19 with a significant risk of substantial harm to a large number of the people in the general population, including the elderly and people with weakened immune systems and chronic medical conditions."

Acton said the order would "take effect immediately and remain in full force and effect until the state of emergency declared by the governor no longer exists."

The Ohio Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the move by a local candidate overnight, effectively allowing the delay to stand. DeWine said the move was necessary to protect poll workers and voters.

"During this time when we face an unprecedented public health crisis, to conduct an election tomorrow would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus," he said in a statement. "While the polls will be closed tomorrow, Secretary of State Frank LaRose will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity."

LaRose told CNN that Acton had "broad authority" to act despite the judge's earlier ruling.

"What the health director has is broad authority to protect the health of Ohioans," he said. "There's a reason why that was created in law. Difficult decisions have to be made. The question of whether to go on with challenging this and appealing to courts in the middle of the night would create more uncertainty. The governor's decision, I think, was a wise one to create the finality here so that poll workers know we're not going to order them to go to the polls tomorrow morning when it is detrimental to their health."

The decision came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged the public to avoid gatherings of 50 people or more for at least eight weeks. The White House further instructed people to avoid groups of more than 10 and advised staying out of restaurants and bars.

Despite the recommendations, Arizona, Florida and Illinois still plan to hold their primaries on Tuesday. Officials in those states said they do not plan any last-minute changes, according to CNN.

Several states have already delayed their upcoming contests. Georgia, which was set to vote next Tuesday, moved its primary date to May 19. Louisiana, which was scheduled to hold its primary on April 4, will instead vote on June 20. Kentucky, which was not scheduled to vote until May 19, has already postponed its primary until June 23. The Wyoming Democratic Party announced last week that the "in-person portion" of its April 4 caucuses were "suspended."

DeWine said earlier Monday that in-person primaries "cannot conform with the CDC guidelines."

"We cannot conduct this election tomorrow, the in-person voting for 13 hours tomorrow, and conform to these guidelines," he said. "We should not be in a situation where the votes of these individuals, who are conflicted, are suppressed."

DeWine said the state will allow absentee voting between Tuesday and June 2.

The spread of COVID-19 has already upended the race, forcing former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and President Donald Trump to cancel planned rallies. Sunday's debate between Biden and Sanders was moved from Phoenix, Ariz., to a soundstage in Washington and was held without a live audience.

Trump called the delays "unnecessary" Monday, even as he announced the recommendation to avoid groups of 10 or more.

"Well, I'd leave that up to the states. It's a big thing, postponing an election," he said. "I think postponing elections is not a very good thing. I think postponing is unnecessary."

Biden urged his supporters to vote if they are "not showing symptoms and not at risk of being exposed to COVID-19." The CDC has warned that people can spread the virus even if they do not show symptoms.

Sanders, on the other hand, praised election officials for postponing primaries, saying it did not make sense to allow voting while people are at risk.

"I would hope that governors listen to the public health experts, and what they are saying as you just indicated, we don't want gatherings of more than 50 people," he said at Sunday's debate. "I'm thinking about some of the elderly people sitting behind the desks, registering people, doing all that stuff. Does that make a lot of sense? I'm not sure that it does."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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