The coronavirus pandemic disrupted the 2020 presidential primary as the Ohio governor announced late Monday that polls would not open “as a health emergency” despite a state judge’s ruling that the election must go on.
“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 tweet. He also promised to push for a remedy through the courts “to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity.”
The announcement was sure to create more uncertainty as voters, poll workers and county election officials received yet another reversal regarding the fate of Tuesday’s presidential primary, with voting set to begin at 6:30 a.m.
Earlier Monday, Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye rejected a temporary restraining order supported by DeWine to seek the delay, saying in a hearing late Monday that rescheduling the election would “set a terrible precedent.”
“There are too many factors to balance in this uncharted territory,” Frye said at a court hearing Monday evening.
It was unclear how quickly the status of the lawsuit would be resolved.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Diane Menashe, said via text that they will appeal Frye’s decision in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Columbus. It remains unclear whether they will appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court if necessary — or whether the suit has been rendered moot by DeWine’s announcement.
Edward Foley, a professor of constitutional law at Ohio State University and former solicitor general of Ohio, said the judge’s ruling denied a request from private plaintiffs to delay the primary but may have left room for the sort of emergency directive made by the governor, which appears to preserve votes already cast while preventing in-person voting for reasons of public health. But he said there were still unanswered questions about the state of those early votes, as well as future opportunities for voters who have not yet cast a ballot but intended to Tuesday.
“We need greater clarity from the governor as to whether he’s actually calling off the election,” said Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine.
DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose issued a joint statement after the ruling, defending their effort to postpone voting Tuesday.
“The only thing more important than a free and fair election is the health and safety of Ohioans,” they said in the statement.
“Logistically, under these extraordinary circumstances, it simply isn’t possible to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans. They mustn’t be forced to choose between their health and exercising their constitutional rights.”
On Twitter, the whiplash of election officials played out in real time.
At 7:37 p.m., about four hours after it had tweeted that the primary was delayed, the Summit County Board of Elections revised its announcement.
“We are aware the information we originally gave was incorrect. We apologize for any confusion we may have caused. We’ll get the proper information out as soon as we have it,” the account tweeted.
A few moments later, the Wayne County Board of Elections tweeted on its account: “We have NO Official word regarding the status of tomorrow’s election. Please stay tuned.”
Some Ohio counties began signaling to voters on social media that the primaries were back on. Franklin County, the state’s most populous, said in a statement that poll workers should “prepare to report.”
“You are encouraged to monitor your text and email for further updates. We regret any confusion that’s been created and appreciate your patience and cooperation,” the board of elections said in a statement at about 9:20 p.m.
Mike West, communications manager for the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, said his office did not tell poll workers the election was postponed because of the possibility the judge would rule against it.
“We were very careful not to stop doing our work to prepare for tomorrow’s election, because we wanted to wait for the official ruling,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost had no information either, and said the office was in the middle of figuring out what to do.
“That’s the million dollar question right now,” said Bethany McCorkle, Yost’s communications director. “People are trying to figure out where that would be appealed and if there’s time.”
The drama underscored the challenges more and more states could face as the election calendar unfolds with the pandemic as backdrop, as well as the threat to voter access that could ensue, legal experts said.
Marc Elias, a Democratic election lawyer in Washington, said “there is no perfect option at this point.”
“Every state needs to do the best that they can to ensure voters can participate in the primary election,” he said. “For some states, moving forward as planned makes the most sense. For other states with more time to plan, they may be able to mitigate some of the problems with a delay.”
DeWine said at a news conference earlier Monday that he believed the state should cancel in-person voting in the state’s primary Tuesday, noting that to allow it would not be in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines against gatherings of 50 people or more. He said he wanted to postpone in-person voting until June 2 and extending absentee balloting during the intervening weeks.
“It is clear that tomorrow’s in-person voting does not conform and cannot conform with these CDC guidelines,” the governor said in an announcement that caught some local election officials by surprise.
“We cannot conduct this election tomorrow, the in-person voting for 13 hours tomorrow, and conform to these guidelines,” DeWine said. “This was not a decision that was easily made, like most of the decisions we’ve had to make,” he said. “But I believe it is the right thing to do.”
In the daily coronavirus briefing from the White House, President Donald Trump weighed in on DeWine’s decision and whether the three other states holding primaries Tuesday should follow suit, saying he would leave that decision up to the states.
But, he said: “I think postponing elections is not a very good thing. They have lots of room in a lot of the electoral places... . I think postponing is unnecessary.”
The announcement and subsequent judge’s decision created new uncertainty for the two main Democratic White House contenders, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Despite Biden’s victories in recent primaries, Sanders has shown no sign that he will concede soon, and the havoc created by the pandemic could slow Biden’s newfound momentum.
In three other states with presidential primaries Tuesday, officials contended with more poll workers announcing planned no-shows, more voting location closures and worries that the public would stay home. But officials in Arizona, Florida and Illinois said their primaries would proceed Tuesday.
“We’re not going to panic,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said during a news conference Monday.
Still, election officials acknowledged that voters were worried — and that they need to take precautions for their health.
“The longer we wait the more difficult and dangerous this will become,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. “My message to voters is: Stay informed and make a decision that is right for you.”
As they prepared for Tuesday’s vote, local officials confronted shortages of poll workers and cleaning supplies and the need to close some polling locations, many of which were in senior living facilities.
In Arizona, the Maricopa County Elections Department closed 78 polling locations, citing widespread shortages of cleaning supplies. Now, rather than being limited to their local precinct, voters may cast ballots at any of 151 geographically dispersed polling centers.
The last-minute change is expected to create confusion for voters accustomed to going to the assigned polling location in their neighborhood, but officials said the change “allows equal access to the polls, while prioritizing the health and safety of the public.”
As of Sunday, there were 13 confirmed or presumed positive coronavirus cases in Arizona.
Poll-worker shortages in Florida prompted one election official in Pasco County, north of Tampa, to draft sheriff’s deputies, school district workers and county employees to fill in.
“I reached out to our county administrator and the sheriff, and also the school supervisor, and I said, ‘We’re hemorrhaging poll workers by the hour, and we need your help,’ ” Brian Corley said Monday.
Corley said that because of the coronavirus, many poll workers are afraid to show up — and he cautioned that people who are sick should not vote in person.
“This is the only time you’ll hear me discourage voting,” Corley said. “But if you’re sick, don’t come to the polls.”
Corley said voters can ask someone to pick up a mail-in ballot for them at the office of the supervisor of elections and then have it returned it to the office by 7 p.m., when polls close. In Florida, voters can designate with a written affidavit someone to pick up their ballot.
Corley’s office usually employees 1,000 poll workers, many of whom are retirement age. By Monday morning, 150 said they would not be coming in — and he said he expected more to drop out. There are more than 250,000 registered voters on Pasco County’s rolls.
In Ohio, reaction to DeWine’s announcement was mixed among voting advocates. Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, praised the decision after expressing concern earlier in the day that disinfecting supplies and poll workers was insufficient to “truly meet the challenge tomorrow.”
A lawsuit intended to block Tuesday’s election was filed late Monday in Franklin County, Ohio, by two female plaintiffs over the age of 65 who have not yet voted.
One of the women, Jill Reardon, said she has battled two forms of cancer and suffers from “severe immune deficiency.”
“I should not be forced to make the choice between my health and my constitutional right to vote in the election,” Reardon stated, adding that if the primary were held Tuesday, she would decline to vote in person, to avoid possible exposure to the virus.
The complaint stated that holding the election Tuesday would violate “numerous provisions of Ohio law,” as well as the First and 14th amendments.
DeWine’s announcement that he was seeking the postponement forced local election officials to turn on a dime. Dave Herron, a part-time employee working the phones at the Summit County Board of Elections in Akron, let out a laugh when asked how the county was processing the change, choosing to find humor in the grim and confusing situation.
“We’re answering the phones and assuring the voters that, yes, they heard it correctly — the election isn’t going to be held tomorrow,” he said.
Herron said they were encouraging voters to apply for absentee ballots and asking poll workers who had already picked up supplies for in-person voting to keep those materials secured in their homes until they receive further instructions.
David Owens, with the Montgomery County Board of Elections in Dayton, said he was witnessing a surge in requests for absentee ballot applications after the governor’s announcement. “We are trying to hit the curveball,” he said. “We will follow the rules as soon as we learn what they are.”
Others were waiting to see what the courts decided.
“We can’t assume the election will be delayed until the judge rules,” said Mike West, a spokesman for the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, which encompasses Cleveland. “And things have been pretty unpredictable lately. We’re going to wait and see, and whatever challenges are in front of us, we’ll find a way to manage.”
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing the Democratic Party to adjust its planning for the remainder of the primary calendar, scrambling state plans to select convention delegates, delaying preparations for a 12th debate in April and raising pressure for a change in party rules.
Louisiana and Georgia announced over the weekend their plans to delay primaries. On Monday, Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, recommended that Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, move the presidential primaries scheduled for May 19 to June 23.
Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican, said he was considering postponing a Republican runoff in the 2nd Congressional District scheduled for March 31. Election officials in Maryland said they would examine the possibility of an election delay as well, and Texas Democrats called for all-mail elections on May 2 and May 26.
And in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, issued an executive order delaying village elections until April 28, when the state is scheduled to hold its presidential primaries.
The most pressing concern for party leaders is how to handle county and state conventions over the next months that will select the people who will serve as delegates at the national Democratic convention in accordance with the caucus and primary results. In normal times, states such as Iowa and New Hampshire would hold in-person meetings over the coming weeks to choose their delegates, but the national party has made clear that states can shift those plans to account for the viral threat.
“We are providing flexibility for how you get those bodies into the delegate slots,” said a Democratic official who requested anonymity to discuss the internal discussions. State parties will still be required to choose their delegates in proportions prescribed by primary and caucus results, from slates that have been approved by the candidates who have been awarded delegates.
The party is also monitoring the four remaining states that will hold primaries or caucuses that are run by the party and not the state governments. Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming are still scheduled to hold contests on April 4, and Kansas is scheduled for May 2. In each case, state parties had planned to rely heavily on vote by mail, which is likely to allow the events to proceed with minimal disruption, the official said.
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The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer in Washington, Lori Rozsa in Palm Beach, Florida, Holly Bailey and Jimmy Magahern in Phoenix, Joanna Connors in Cleveland and Marc Guarino in Chicago contributed to this report.