Ohio Primary Election Called Off, Despite Judge’s Ruling

March 17, 2020 by Dan McCue
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine addresses members of the media during a press conference updating the public on COVID-19 on Thursday, March 12, 2020 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Doral Chenoweth III/Columbus Dispatch/TNS)

After hours of confusion the Ohio primary scheduled to be held Tuesday has been canceled by order of the state Health Director, Dr. Amy Acton.

Acton’s decision, announced shortly after 10 p.m. Monday night, capped a seven-hour period when it appeared the election was off, then back on, and then off again.

It all began Monday afternoon, when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he would support a lawsuit intended to delay the state’s impending presidential primary until June due to concerns over the coronavirus.

During a televised news conference, the Republican governor said the day-long in-person voting scheduled to begin Tuesday morning would put Ohio voters and tens of thousands of poll workers at risk.

Specifically, he said there was no way to carry out the vote and comply with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday that recommended gatherings be kept smaller than 50 people.

“We cannot conduct this election tomorrow, the in-person voting for 13 hours tomorrow, and conform to these guidelines,” DeWine said.

Referring to the state’s voters, he added, “We should not force them to make this choice, the choice between their health and their constitutional rights and duties.”

By law, DeWine could not unilaterally shut down elections. That’s why he said he was supporting a lawsuit filed in Franklin County, Ohio, seeking to delay the vote until June 2.

The lawsuit names Secretary of State Frank LaRose as the defendant.

Speaking at the same news conference as the governor, LaRose said he would direct Attorney General Dave Yost not to contest it. He also said he would submit a detailed proposal to the court seeking permission to delay the election, and to conduct as much of the election as possible by mail.

But then Judge Richard Frye, presiding in Franklin County, Ohio’s Court of Common Pleas, threw the governor and state election officials a curve by denying their bid to postpone the election.

Judge Frye said it would set a “terrible precedent” for a judge to step in 12 hours before polls open to rewrite the Ohio election code.

The state immediately appealed the judge’s ruling to the 10th U.S. District Court of Appeals, which has yet to weigh in on the controversy.

The governor and state election officials then turned to the health director, who under the law has enormous powers during a health crisis.

Whether those powers extend to shutting down an election is expected to be tested in a series of court challenges filed later today.

Also likely to be litigated are requests for additional days for absentee balloting and moving the election to a date other than June 2.

In a statement announcing the health director’s decision, Gov. DeWine said, “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 a unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus.”

“While the polls will be closed tomorrow, Secretary of State Frank LaRose will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity,” the governor said.

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s canceled primary, Ohio had already been struggling to cope with holding an election in the age of the coronavirus. Traditionally most poll workers are retirees, and older individuals are also considered most at risk from the coronavirus outbreak.

As a result, county election officials across the state were struggling to train younger volunteers to take their place.

Adding to the chaotic situation, many poll workers across the state had been prematurely told to stop setting up polling places Monday night and not to come in Tuesday because the election already had been delayed – when it hadn’t.

Just last week, LaRose issued a joint statement with election officials in Arizona, Florida and Illinois, that said they were confident voters in their states could safely and securely cast their ballots on Tuesday, and that otherwise healthy poll workers can and should carry out their patriotic duties as well.

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