Ohio governor shutters polling places for Tuesday's primary, citing public health
The Ohio Supreme Court overnight ruling effectively allows the state to postpone its primary until June as the coronavirus crisis escalates.
Polls will not open for Ohio's primary election Tuesday after a late-night decision from Gov. Mike DeWine's administration, effectively upheld by the state Supreme Court, to delay in-person voting until June in an effort to protect voters and poll workers from the coronavirus outbreak.
"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," DeWine said in a statement.
The election was in limbo for several hours Monday night after a judge in Columbus denied a last-minute attempt backed by the state to postpone the primary election. But DeWine responded with an order from the state's top health official, Amy Acton, closing physical polling places as the legal battle moved up to the Ohio Supreme Court. Early Tuesday morning, four judges on that court issued a unanimous, unsigned ruling declining to stop the state from shuttering polls. Three other judges on the court recused — two because they're currently running for reelection and the other because he is DeWine's son.
The ruling effectively overturns the Monday ruling from Franklin County Judge Richard Frye that the primary had to continue as scheduled. Frye said it was too late to move back the primary and that doing so would confuse and suppress voters.
Frye also took issue with the state’s claim that moving the election to June would alleviate voters’ health concerns, saying there's no medical evidence the pandemic will have disappeared by then.
DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose insisted voters will still be able to vote. "Every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity," DeWine said Monday.
But DeWine's unprecedented order — closing physical polling places because an attempt to postpone the election failed — perplexed experts in election law.
"What I find most confusing is whether the governor is purporting to call off the election or not," said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California-Irvine said late Monday. "Saying one is closing polling places is not the same as postponing the election."
A directive from LaRose to county elections officials late Monday night, following the polls closure, said the primary was postponed until June 2 and said counties are "prohibited from tabulating and reporting any results" until then.
"There hasn't been an order to the Ohio secretary of state's office or to the governor's office that's been violated," LaRose told CNN's "New Day" on Tuesday, arguing that state health officials acted within their jurisdiction. "I serve as the chief elections officer for Ohio, and what I wanted to do was create certainty for Ohioans."
But the future of the state's primary is far from certain.
Ohio's state legislature won't meet until next week to take action on the primary, and House Speaker Larry Householder said in a memo to his fellow lawmakers Tuesday that nothing is final until they vote to set a new election date.
"The legal authority to change the date rests with the Ohio General Assembly," he said. "No Ohio voter should ever wonder when they will have the opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote."
Later Tuesday afternoon, the Ohio Democratic Party filed a lawsuit making a similar argument: that LaRose abused his power by unilaterally delaying the primary to June 2.
“Yesterday’s actions did not create unchecked authority with the governor or secretary of state to run a new election," party chair David Pepper said.
The lawsuit asks Ohio's Supreme Court to set a new election date of May 8, calling it "a more workable window." The Democrats are also petitioning the court to make the state extended the deadline to request a mail ballot until April 25, prepay for all voters' postage, and set up ballot drop-off sites at every board of elections office and early voting center.
Ohio was one of four states with primaries scheduled on Tuesday, along with Arizona, Florida and Illinois. Officials in the other three states said that their Tuesday primaries would proceed as planned.
Meanwhile, Kentucky's top elections official announced on Monday that his state's primaries would move from May to June as well.
Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams announced that he and Gov. Andy Beshear had agreed to delay the state's May primary until June 23. "There could be more changes, but this was a first step to buy us time," Adams said in his announcement. Kentucky is the third state to formally delay its primary, following Louisiana and Georgia.
Earlier in the day, Ohio officials claimed they were ready to move forward with the election as well should the courts not grant the extension.
"If that was necessitated, I have no doubt that the patriotic Ohio election officials would get that job done," LaRose said.
Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said both state party chairs were consulted and supportive of the push to postpone the primary, though he acknowledged the last-minute nature of the announcement risks confusing voters.
"In deference to their expertise on this critical health crisis, I support that decision regarding in-person voting tomorrow," Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said in a statement following DeWine's initial press conference. "Extending an election is an unprecedented step, so we as a party are weighing alternatives on how to best do so — including the possibility to conduct the primary election entirely by vote-by-mail, as is done in several other states, with a deadline much earlier than June 2."
The move represented a significant escalation in state action to fight the coronavirus outbreak. Already, Ohio election officials had relocated or closed nearly 150 polling places that were originally supposed to be in nursing homes and assisted living facilities and recruited backup poll workers to replace those who were not comfortable serving due to their age or health status.
Over the weekend, before trying to move election day, Ohio officials ordered county boards of elections to set up curbside voting options and extend the deadline to request an absentee ballot for anyone impacted by the virus.
As recently as Friday, election officials from all four states voting Friday, including LaRose, said that the March 17 elections would go on as scheduled. After DeWine held his Monday press conference, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that he "feel[s] good about the decision to let the election go on tomorrow."
"Look, we have to have our elections continue, in my opinion," Pritzker said. "This is the right thing to do. Our democracy needs to go on. We have to elect leaders."
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also said Monday that she wanted "to encourage everybody to go out and vote today and if you choose to vote tomorrow, it's going to be safe."
In Florida, Secretary of State Laurel Lee said Monday evening at a press conference that the state will still hold its primary on Tuesday. Lee said nearly 2 million people have already voted.
And in Arizona, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said the election will also move forward. "What it all comes down to is that we have no guarantee that there will be a safer time to hold this election in the near future," Hobbs said at a press conference.
Election officials in the state have worked to minimize risk in polling places across the state, striking a delicate balance between making voting accessible and protecting public health.
"This is a dynamic situation. It’s changing day by day, hour by hour," Adrian Fontes, the Maricopa County recorder, told POLITICO in an interview on Monday. "While the state has closed all rec centers and libraries, we made sure they will still stay open as polling places. We have heightened cleanliness and sanitation protocols, and we're paying close attention to mandates from federal, state and local authorities. ... Election administrators have to be ready for anything. Except Godzilla.”
Natasha Korecki and Maggie Severns contributed to this report.