Ohio seeks to delay Tuesday’s primary because of coronavirus pandemic (updated)

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The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports, Gov. Mike DeWine wants to postpone Ohio’s Tuesday primary election till June 2 due to coronavirus:

Less than 24 hours before it was to have taken place, Ohio officials are seeking to delay the state’s presidential primary election until June 2, Gov. Mike DeWine announced Monday.

DeWine, a Republican, said it’s unfair to make groups vulnerable to COVID-19 — people who are 65 years old and older, pregnant people, people with compromised immune systems and others — decide whether they should vote or stay home on Tuesday.

“Is it a perfect decision? No, absolutely it is not. But’s the best we believe of the alternatives… And it doesn’t force people to choose between their health and their constitutional rights,” he said.

The move will require some legal maneuvering. DeWine said a lawsuit will be filed later Monday in Franklin County by a citizens’ group. LaRose, a Republican, said he will ask Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, to not contest the suit, and to file the state’s recommendation that the election be delayed.

Between now and June 2, mail-in voting would continue, if the judge approves the move.

Why June 2? Because primary results are used to choose presidential delegates, and the Republican and Democratic conventions are scheduled for July.

“Safer would have been September,” DeWine said. “we have one problem: it’s a presidential year.”

Ohio would join Georgia and Louisiana in seeking to move its election. Other March 17 primary states — Arizona, Illinois and Florida — have not sought to postpone voting.

Meanwhile, DeWine and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose recommended that Ohioans, particularly the vulnerable, stay home on Tuesday. They said asking poll workers to spend 13 hours in a public space is not safe.

As recently as Monday morning, officials had planned to move forward with the election. LaRose on Sunday night issued a written directive to elections officials, ordering them to set up curbside voting on Election Day, and to loosen absentee voting restrictions on those hospitalized or quarantined due to coronavirus.

But shortly it was to have begun, officials canceled a morning LaRose press conference at which he was going to discuss the new measures. They then announced LaRose would join DeWine for an afternoon announcement about the election.

DeWine attributed the change of heart to new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control — which recommended the public not hold gatherings larger than 50 people — and a conference call with federal officials. He also said that the public’s understanding of the gravity of the situation is rapidly changing, and more people have called with concerns.

“It’s clear that tomorrow’s in-person voting does not conform with these CDC guidelines,” DeWine said.

President Donald Trump, a Republican, told reporters in Washington, D.C. that deciding on what to do about elections was up to individual states.

But, he said he felt postponing is “unnecessary.”

“I hope they do it very safely. But I think postponing elections is not a very good thing,” he said, according to ABC News.

Ohio Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Timken and Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper were notified ahead of time.

Timken issued a statement quickly after the announcement: “We fully support this recommendation, while knowing how difficult this will be on our candidates and their campaigns. We will work with all parties to assist in disseminating information on the new primary date and the new voting rules associated with this change.”

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said in a statement he supports postponing the election, but isn’t sure about the June 2 date or the plan to eventually conduct in-person voting.

“Extending an election is an unprecedented step, so we as a party are weighing alternatives on how to best do so — including the possibility to conduct the primary election entirely by vote-by-mail, as is done in several other states, with a deadline much earlier than June 2,” he said.

Tuesday’s primary elections should not be delayed — it is an extraordinary remedy the court should not exercise less than 24 hours before an election. (Will update).

But going forward after this Tuesday, the coronavirus pandemic could lead to hundreds of poll workers not showing up to work amid worries about contracting the virus, causing major disruptions to elections. Intensifying coronavirus fears rattle voters and elections officials in advance of Tuesday primaries:

Voters, campaigns and election officials in four states holding contests Tuesday are braced for a presidential primary day unlike any in memory, as the surging threat of the novel coronavirus has forced major changes at voting locations, rattled poll workers and left voters worried about how to cast their ballots.

In Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, election officials have raced to replace poll workers who have said they will not show Tuesday, supply thousands of precincts with sanitizing supplies, and notify voters whose polling locations, many in senior facilities, have been moved as a result of the pandemic.

Voters, meanwhile, have flooded information hotlines. Among their urgent questions: where to vote, how to deliver a ballot if they are under quarantine and how to vote if they registered while attending a college that is now closed.

As the coronavirus spreads, the Democratic Party of Puerto Rico announced Sunday that it would seek to postpone the territory’s March 29 primaries, joining Louisiana and Georgia. One New York election official said Sunday that discussions are underway about whether to delay that state’s contests. New York Times, New York Officials Weigh Delaying April Primary Election.

UPDATE: Gov. Beshear delays Kentucky May 19 primary until June 23 because of pandemic.

The rapidly changing landscape left officials worried about the threat of two equally dire outcomes Tuesday: chaos at voting places, with diminished staffs causing long lines and increasing the risk of exposure to the deadly virus; or low turnout levels fueled by public fear.

“I really don’t have any idea how it will go,” said Wendy Sartory Link, supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County, the second-largest of Florida’s 67 counties.

Of roughly 3,500 poll workers originally signed up to work at 435 voting locations in Palm Beach, about 650 have canceled amid fears about the virus, Link said.

That means some polling locations slated to have 10 workers on hand could instead have seven, or even five. It also will mean fewer check-in stations and, if turnout is robust, longer lines, she said.

Link said her office successfully notified all voters whose precincts were moved as a result of the pandemic, for instance if the original location was in an assisted-living facility. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Friday ordered locations near certain vulnerable populations moved.

One of the biggest challenges, voting advocates said, is just making sure people know how to cast their ballots.

Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said her team is making its way through a mountain of calls from concerned voters, including college students who registered on campus but are home now and self-quarantined individuals not sure how to deliver their ballots in states that don’t allow third parties to handle them.

“We’re just in uncharted territories on so many fronts,” Johnson-Blanco said.

On Sunday, people voting early in Ohio, Florida and Illinois crowded into polling locations at higher-than-usual rates — in many cases to avoid potentially longer lines Tuesday.

* * *

Marc Elias, a Democratic election lawyer in Washington, said Tuesday represents the country’s first test of how to administer an election in the middle of a pandemic — and is likely to provide a road map for the necessary preparations for the more critical general election in November.

A bad day, he added, “will feed not only a narrative that people are waiting a long time but also that there’s a public health crisis as well.”

Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said the public’s fears could overtake their desire to vote — though she encouraged people who feel comfortable to turn out.

“We’re asking people to go into pretty confined conditions, and even with all sorts of wipes and the things that can be done to make things safe, it is anxiety-provoking,” she said.

So even as state and local officials in the United States intensified their warnings about the coronavirus threat Sunday, they also sought to reassure voters that casting their ballots was safe.

On Friday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was taking the exact opposite postion that he is taking on Monday:

[L]ike leaders in the other three states holding elections this week, DeWine said there were no plans to delay the primaries.

“It is important for us to be able to exercise our constitutional rights,” DeWine said, “and to interrupt an election in the middle of it poses some very, very serious consequences.”

In a video posted Friday on YouTube, Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton said it was “absolutely” safe for people who are healthy to serve as poll workers.

“We need you,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in the same video. “This is your patriotic duty. . . . A no-call, no-show on Tuesday is absolutely not acceptable.”

Still, Ohio and Illinois are still struggling to recruit enough poll workers to prevent disruptions Tuesday, advocates and officials said.

In Cook County, Ill., Clerk Karen A. Yarbrough tweeted that all training requirements will be waived for volunteers.

In some Ohio jurisdictions, cotton swabs will be available to use on screen-based voting machines. In Franklin County, the most populous in the state, voters will have access to finger cots, also known as finger gloves or finger condoms, as they cast their ballots.

Paul Lux, supervisor of elections in Okaloosa County, in Florida’s Panhandle, said he wasn’t able to secure hand sanitizer for all 42 voting locations. Lux also learned Sunday that local officials had just closed two city recreation centers slated to serve as voting locations. Scrambling to find alternatives, he was able to persuade city leaders to cordon off portions of both buildings to allow voting to proceed.

“Tuesday cannot get here fast enough!” Lux wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, key states due to vote in April were weighing their own emergency decisions.

In Wisconsin, which is scheduled to hold its primaries April 7, the elections commission asked local clerks to mail absentee ballots to voters in nursing homes. Officials urged all voters to cast absentee ballots if possible.

Douglas A. Kellner, New York State Board of Elections co-chairman, said talks were underway with the governor’s office and legislative leaders about postponing the presidential primary from April 28 to June 23.

Depending on how bad this coronavirus pandemic gets, it may be grounds to delay primary elections, not just in the presidential preference primaries, but in primaries for state legislative and congressional races across the country.

This could force states to enact all-mail elections for the November election. Four states—Oregon (2000), Washington (2011), Colorado (2013) and Hawaii (2019) —already hold all elections entirely by mail. In California, some counties are currently permitted to conduct all-mail elections. After 2020, the option will be available to all counties in the state.

At least 21 states have provisions allowing certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail, including Arizona. The Arizona legislature should enact an all-mail election for the November general election as an emergency measure while the legislature is currently in session. This would eliminate the problem of poll workers not showing up to work amid worries about contracting the virus, causing major disruptions to the election. The vast majority of Arizona voters already vote by early mail-in ballot, so all-mail elections is just the next logical step to take.

UPDATE: Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden in an op-ed in the Washington Post write Here’s how to guarantee coronavirus won’t disrupt our elections (excerpt):

In less than eight months, elections will be held across the country that determine not only who the president will be but also the outcome of 11 gubernatorial elections, 35 of 100 U.S. Senate seats and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Primary elections underway across the country will decide who will be on the ballot in November, and we have already seen them affected by this pandemic.

[W]hile states can shift primary dates, the Nov. 3 federal election is set by federal law, as the Constitution mandates that the new Congress convene on Jan. 3 and the president is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Without federal action, Americans might have to choose between casting a ballot and protecting their health. That’s wrong, and we must take swift action to address the problem.

The best way to ensure that this virus doesn’t keep people from the ballot box is to bring the ballot box to them. We must allow every American the ability to vote by mail. And we must expand early voting so that voters who are not able to vote by mail are not exposed to the elevated infection risks of long lines and crowded polling locations.

On Monday, we will introduce the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 to help election officials meet this pandemic head-on. Our legislation will guarantee every voter a secure mail-in paper ballot and help states cover the cost of printing, self-sealing envelopes, ballot tracking and postage. Vote-by-mail is a time-tested, reliable way for Americans to exercise their constitutional rights, and it is the right response to this crisis.

Our legislation would also expand early voting to avoid lines where the virus could spread and help states recruit young poll workers so that older Americans who typically step up on Election Day can stay home. As we adapt to this new threat, we must also remember that not every American can mark a ballot by hand, so our bill provides resources to ensure that Americans with a disability have access to remote ballot marking so that they can vote by mail, too.

[T]o account for potential postal delays, our bill requires that each ballot postmarked on or before Election Day be counted. It also blocks federal funding from being spent on Internet voting, which experts say is dangerously insecure.

We’re in a national emergency for which federal leadership is most important. States and local elections offices can’t bear the burden alone. Our bill ensures they have the resources and guidance necessary to protect the constitutional rights of every American voter and keep democracy functioning as we weather this disaster.

The ability for people to choose their leaders is the foundation of our democracy. Congress has acted to provide states with medical and economic relief; now we should act swiftly to pass the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 to ensure that, during a national emergency, every American has a safe way to participate in our democracy.




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