Ohio Orders Polls Closed, While Others Hold Election Primaries Amid Outbreak

This Sunday, March 15, 2020, file photo shows a bowl of stickers for those taking advantage of early voting in Steubenville, Ohio.

This Sunday, March 15, 2020, file photo shows a bowl of stickers for those taking advantage of early voting in Steubenville, Ohio. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

After a judge denied Ohio’s request to postpone the state’s primary elections, the governor announced an emergency order to close polls on Tuesday. Arizona, Florida and Illinois are taking extra precautions to keep voters safe at the polls amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Ohio’s health director will issue a “health emergency” order to close polls Tuesday after a judge denied a request made by the governor on Monday night to postpone the election amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

The last-minute order means Ohio will delay the state’s primary elections until an unknown time even as three other states have said election officials will take extra precautions as they forge ahead with in-person voting Tuesday.

"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,” Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine said late Monday announcing the emergency order. 

While the polls are closed, DeWine said Secretary of State Frank LaRose would work on a legal solution to allow residents to cast their ballots.

DeWine and LaRose had filed a lawsuit Monday asking to postpone the state’s primary until June 2 and to keep absentee voting available until then so residents can continue to vote by mail. Franklin County Judge Richard Frye shot down the request, saying it came too late.

“There are too many factors to balance in this unchartered territory to say that we ought to take this away from the legislature and elected statewide officials, and throw it to a common pleas court judge in Columbus 12 hours before the election," Frye said, according to Cleveland.com

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance Monday to recommend that people avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.  

In a joint statement about the judge’s ruling, DeWine and LaRose said that under the circumstances it wouldn’t be logistically possible “to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans.”

DeWine has said officials were concerned that going forward with Tuesday’s primary elections would compromise the health of older residents, who appear more at risk of severe illness or death if they contract the virus, and poll workers.

“We should not force them to make this choice, a choice between their health and their constitutional rights and duties as American citizens,” DeWine said earlier in the day. “Further we should not be in a situation where the votes of these individuals who are conflicted are suppressed.”

Georgia and Louisiana have already decided to postpone their primary elections, but Ohio’s action would make the state the first to actually go forward with a delay. 

Elections officials in three other states, Illinois, Florida and Arizona said they intend to go forward with primary elections Tuesday. The decisions to go forward with elections came even as normal life ground to a halt in many states across the country.  Governors of a number of states, including Illinois, ordered closures of bars, gyms, and theaters.

Officials in the three states scrambled Monday to advise residents of challenges or changes they may encounter at the voting booth.

In Illinois, officials advised residents to double check their polling place online because hundreds of polling sites across the state changed locations to avoid sending the public to nursing homes or senior centers.

“Anyone who is voting on Election Day, it is inevitable that some are going to show up to the address that is on their voting card and they will see a sign telling them to vote someplace else,” said Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois Board of Elections.

County clerks have been encouraging residents to participate in early voting in order to limit crowds who show up to vote Tuesday. More residents were taking advantage of early voting than in the 2016 primaries, Dietrich said.

As of Monday morning, more than 504,000 early voting ballots in Illinois were cast and 294,000 mail ballots had been sent to voters. That’s compared to 400,000 early voting ballots and 160,000 mail ballots in the 2016 primaries.  Early voting hours were also extended until 7 p.m. Monday to allow more residents to avoid the polls the following day.  

The CDC issued guidance for elections officials and poll workers regarding safety precautions to take on election day. Recommendations include:

  • Encouraging early voting or use of mail-in methods of voting if allowed.
  • Disinfect and clean voting equipment like voting machines, laptops, and tablets often throughout the day.
  • Poll workers should often wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Elections officials should publicize off-peak times at polling stations to discourage crowded polling sites.

States going forward with elections on Tuesday said they plan to follow the CDC’s guidelines.

In a video message distributed Monday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said steps were being taken to comply with those recommendations. 

They also asked voters to make sure they wash their hands before and after leaving the polls.

In Florida, elections officials said more than 1.3 million people had returned ballots by mail and another 651,000 people voted early in the state. A spokesman for the Florida Department of State said officials were encouraging voters to check with their local elections supervisors to determine whether or not their assigned polling place has changed.  

Election officials worry that the coronavirus outbreak will negatively impact election turnout.

“This is an unprecedented situation. We have never dealt with something like this before,” Dietrich said. “It is almost certain we will see some drop off in election day turnout despite our efforts to get people to vote early.”

With more primaries in the pipeline ahead of the November presidential election, other states will have to decide how to handle their primary elections. At least 32 states and Washington D.C. allow voters to vote absentee by-mail without a reason or excuse, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. Allowing more residents to vote by mail could ensure that their constitutional rights are protected during the public health crisis, said Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute.

“Voting by mail from home—when planned and executed effectively in lockstep with proven voter education activities—offers secure and accessible options that make it a rational starting point for election guidelines that could potentially be implemented at scale,” the institute said in a statement issued over the weekend.  

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Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.

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