Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said the state’s Tuesday primary cannot meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for preventing community spread of the coronavirus and is recommending postponing the vote until June 2 while continuing to accept absentee ballots by mail in the interim.
At an afternoon press conference, DeWine talked of a tough decision, made in consultation with other officeholders and voters calling with concerns about plans to go through with the primary as scheduled.
“We should not force them to make this choice,” DeWine said of senior citizens, pregnant voters, and others worried about their health. “The choice between their health and their constitutional rights and their duties as American citizens. Further, we should not be in a situation where the votes of these individuals who are conflicted are suppressed.”
Technically, DeWine cannot cancel or postpone the election himself. A third-party lawsuit will be filed Monday in Franklin County, home of Columbus, the state capital. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, the state’s chief elections administrator, appeared at the press conference and said the state would not contest the lawsuit and submit to the court the recommendations DeWine outlined.
The situation was still in flux Monday night: a judge rejected the attempt to delay the election. It was not immediately clear if the plaintiffs — independent of the state government but operating with their public blessing — would appeal.
DeWine and LaRose issued a joint statement late Monday that made no explicit order or any clear indication of their next moves, though they reiterated their belief that a primary cannot be held Tuesday.
"The only thing more important than a free and fair election is the health and safety of Ohioans," DeWine and LaRose said in the statement. "The Ohio Department of Health and the CDC have advised against anyone gathering in groups larger than 50 people, which will occur if the election goes forward. Additionally, Ohioans over 65 and those with certain health conditions have been advised to limit their nonessential contact with others, affecting their ability to vote or serve as poll workers. 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."
The circumstances around Tuesday's primaries have shifted rapidly in just the last three days. On Friday, as some states with primaries later in March or April began to move toward delaying their elections, state officials from Ohio, Arizona, Illinois, and Florida said in a joint statement that they intended to stay on track.
"Americans have participated in elections during challenging times in the past, and based on the best information we have from public health officials, we are confident that voters in our states can safely and securely cast their ballots in this election, and that otherwise healthy poll workers can and should carry out their patriotic duties on Tuesday," they said.
But in the days since then, states across the country, including Ohio and Illinois, have virtually shut down to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some states scheduled to vote Tuesday, including Ohio, have also reportedly had trouble recruiting poll workers. And on Sunday, the CDC recommended that public gatherings of more than 50 people in the next two months be canceled or delayed. Polling centers often have at least that many people in one location at a given time.
“We understand the apprehension that voters have right now," Katie Hobbs, the secretary of state in Arizona, another state with a Tuesday primary, said in a statement late Monday. "I have been in consultation with election officials across the state, health experts and leaders from the Democratic Party who agree that the election should move forward tomorrow."
“This decision was not made lightly, and 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, and elections do not end on Election Day," Hobbs added. "There are thousands of workers in communities across the state that must continue the job of counting the ballots in the days following the election. The longer we wait, the more difficult and dangerous it could become."
Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, meanwhile, said early Monday night that the state's primary would go forward as planned.
Bernie Sanders, after Sunday's debate with Joe Biden, suggested in a CNN interview it may be prudent for Tuesday's primaries to be delayed. He pointed to the New York City Democratic primary for mayor and other local offices that was stopped while underway on Sept. 11, 2001, and then rescheduled for one month later.
David Pepper, the chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, prefaced a Sunday night post to his social media accounts with praise for DeWine and LaRose — both are Republican officeholders whom Pepper has worked to defeat in the past — before proposing an extension to the vote-by-mail period.
"Things are moving so fast," Pepper wrote. "Thousands of people who had no reason to request an absentee ballot even days ago might now desperately want one. They are seeing restaurants and bars close. They are seeing schools close. They are scared. They are vulnerable. They suddenly have three kids at home.
"They may have caught a cold, or worse, and are being rightfully told to stay in, and they want to be responsible and do so. But they still want to vote."
The state party on Monday issued a statement from Pepper, who said he had heard from the governor and the state's health director, Dr. Amy Acton, before their press conference.
"In deference to their expertise on this critical health crisis, I support that decision regarding in-person voting tomorrow," Pepper said.
“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," he added. "This could better serve the interests of Ohio voters and the primary process that is already well underway, and we will consider offering those alternatives to the court once the case is filed.”