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 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 and slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some states scheduled to vote on 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 cancelled or delayed. Polling centers often have at least that many people in one location at a given time.
Sophia Solis, spokesperson for the Arizona secretary of state, told BuzzFeed News that the Arizona primary is currently on track, but left room for that to change. “The situation is developing, but at this time we are still moving ahead with tomorrow’s Presidential Preference Election,” she said.
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.”
Pepper added that delaying the primary would not be ideal.
“Democracy must go on — postponing or cancelling elections outright is a dangerous precedent; this still ties it to the March 17 election day, and provides the necessary closure,” he wrote.