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Ohio Primary Postponed At Last Minute Due To Coronavirus After Legal Struggle

Voting stickers are seen at a polling place Sunday in Steubenville, Ohio.
Gene J. Puskar
Voting stickers are seen at a polling place Sunday in Steubenville, Ohio.

Updated at 9:05 a.m. ET Tuesday

After intense legal wrangling, Ohio postponed its Tuesday primary election just hours before polls were set to open.

Early Tuesday morning, the state Supreme Court denied a judge's attempt to let the primary continue after Gov. Mike DeWine had asked the court to delay the primary until June 2 because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Late Monday evening, DeWine sought to bypass the judge by announcingthat Ohio Health Director Amy Acton would order the polls closed as a health emergency.

Three other states — Arizona, Florida and Illinois — are still holding primaries on Tuesday.

"We've had to make a lot of tough decisions over the past few weeks, but everything we've done has been about saving lives," DeWine tweeted Tuesday morning. "If we don't take these actions now, it'll be too late. This is quite literally a matter of life and death."

Secretary of State Frank LaRose had issued guidanceto all county boards of elections in Ohio on Monday that they "must post notice on their websites, social media, at the board of elections, and at polling places that in-person voting for the March 17, 2020 Presidential Primary Election is suspended."

"During my service overseas, I've witnessed people risking their lives to cast a ballot," LaRose told NPR on Monday night. "I've walked in the footsteps of heroes on the streets of Selma, Ala., where people had to fight for the right to vote. Elections are something I don't take lightly. The only thing in the world that I think that takes precedent over conducting this free and fair election is the health and safety of Ohioans."

Ohio's initial announcement came at roughly the same time that President Trump was laying out new guidelines for Americans that include avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people for the rest of the month.

In a joint statement, DeWine and LaRose said Monday that the public health warnings to limit gatherings means "it simply isn't possible to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans."

Unlike many states, Ohio's governor and secretary of state don't have the power to delay the election on their own. Instead, with the approval of both political parties, they supported a lawsuit filed by people who believe they're vulnerable to the virus and did not plan to contest the suit.

"People should not have to choose between their rights and their health," DeWine said.

A number of voting-rights advocacy groups also supported the decision, including the League of Women Voters and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Also on Monday, Kentucky postponed its May 19 primary to June 23. Unlike Ohio, Kentucky state law allows the secretary of state and governor to jointly decide to change the date of an election due to a declared state of emergency.

A potential "lifesaver"

In a statement on Monday, LaRose said the sudden announcement less than 24 hours before the election was made after "new information" about the virus led the Ohio Department of Health to recommend that all Ohioans age 65 and older self-quarantine.

Under the plan he is proposing, absentee voting would be allowed to continue until June 2, and all votes that have already been cast would be counted as normal.

President Trump said Monday that he thought postponing the primaries was "unnecessary" but also said the decision was ultimately up to the respective states.

Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign said in a statement, "We will follow the guidance offered by state public health officials for how to best ensure that their populations are looked after while encouraging participation in our democracy."

Ohio is now the fourth state to postpone its primary because of the coronavirus. Louisiana announced late last week that it would push its April primary to June, while Georgia announced over the weekend that its March 24 primary would be moved to May. Separately, Alabama is considering postponing its March 31 U.S. Senate primary runoff.

"In retrospect, it may be that we view these delays as being lifesavers," said Charles Stewart, an elections expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "On the other hand, it could be that we view the delays as being overreaches. We just don't know at this point."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brett Neely is an editor with NPR's Washington Desk, where he works closely with NPR Member station reporters on political coverage and edits stories about election security and voting rights.
Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.
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