Hours after a judge rejected his request to postpone the state’s presidential primary on Tuesday, Ohio’s governor announced Monday night that his health director would order an emergency shutdown of the polls because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“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,” Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said on Twitter.
Ohio’s Secretary of State Frank LaRose, also a Republican, will return to court in an effort “to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity,” DeWine said.
DeWine’s statement, coming less than nine hours before polls were scheduled to open, came after Judge Richard A. Frye of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas rejected the state’s arguments for postponement. He cited early voting options, the money and time spent by candidates and volunteers, and a lack of evidence that the health crisis will be less serious later.
The legal proceedings came on the eve of scheduled presidential primaries in Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Arizona. The other three states are going forward with their primaries as scheduled.
“At the end of the day, we’re dealing with this in a thoughtful way, but we’re not going to panic,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican. “When you go and cancel, I mean the signal that that sends is somehow that we’re paralyzed. And I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’re taking prudent steps.”
Two other states, Louisiana and Georgia, had already postponed primaries originally scheduled over the next few weeks. Kentucky took steps Monday to move its May 19 primary to June 23. Lawmakers in Puerto Rico were passing legislation to push its March 29 primary to the end of April.
“At some point, it may be so difficult to run a primary that it has to be delayed,” said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at UC Irvine.
The election turmoil comes as former Vice President Joe Biden is trying to cement his delegate lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in what is now a two-person race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
President Trump said Monday that he thought it was unnecessary to reschedule any primaries — even as his administration recommended that Americans avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
“Postponing elections is not a very good thing,” Trump said at a White House news briefing.
At a news conference in Columbus announcing his lawsuit, DeWine said he was following guidelines issued over the weekend from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against gatherings of more than 50 people.
“We cannot conduct this election tomorrow, this in-person voting, for 13 hours tomorrow,” he said, “and conform to these guidelines.”
DeWine has been one of the nation’s more aggressive governors in taking steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus. He ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants in the state on Sunday.
The Board of Elections in Illinois affirmed its plans Monday to go ahead with the election.
“Local election authorities have, when necessary, consulted their local emergency managers for help in obtaining sanitizing supplies for their polling places,” board spokesman Matt Dietrich said.
Election officials were scrambling to avoid disruptions in the balloting.
Among the many challenges were last-minute switches in voting locations, the potential that many poll workers, especially the elderly, will fail to show up, and the fears of voters that they could catch the coronavirus at a crowded polling place.
Nonetheless, election officials tried to reassure the public that the voting would go smoothly.
As of Monday in Florida, nearly 2 million people had already cast ballots by mail or at early voting centers. For those who vote Tuesday in person, Florida Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee said, all poll workers will follow the guidance of state and federal public health officials.
“We are confident that voters in Florida can safely and securely go to the polls and cast their ballots in tomorrow’s election,” she said.
Lee urged anyone with symptoms of illness to designate someone to pick up a vote-by-mail ballot for them at a polling location on Tuesday.
Florida Democratic leaders were concerned that too few voters were given notice of late changes in polling locations.
“Our data team has identified 126,731 voters — who have not yet voted — who live in an affected precinct,” Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, wrote in a public statement.
“We have begun texting and calling these voters and encouraging them to call their Supervisor of Elections to confirm their polling place in advance of tomorrow’s election.”
Hasen said some of the poll workers who were called in on short notice to replace those who declined to run election precincts during the health emergency would require training that could slow down the balloting. At the same time, he said, turnout could be relatively low because of voters opting to stay home.
Some voter confusion over changes in polling locations is inevitable. In Arizona, election officials in Maricopa County, the most populous county in the state, said a shortage of cleaning supplies required replacing its 229 polling locations with 151 voting centers, where any voter can cast a ballot.
Arizona poll workers will establish social distancing measures, sanitize polling equipment and frequently wash their hands, according to Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.
“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,” she said. “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.”