COLUMBUS — Ohio officials sought a court order to postpone the state’s primary election scheduled for Tuesday, as authorities around the country have moved to prevent large gatherings of people amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose, both Republicans, backed a lawsuit on Monday by voters who are asking the court to push in-person voting back until June 2 for the primary, which includes battles for presidential and congressional nominations; that would also give anyone casting absentee ballots more time. Neither official has the power to postpone an election on his own.
There have been questions raised about the impact on turnout among both elderly and youth voters, and DeWine said he didn’t want older voters to face the choice of staying home, as recommended, or going out to vote.
“We should not force them to make this choice, the choice between their health and their constitutional rights and their duties as American citizens,” DeWine said.
Most people who come down with COVID-19 have relatively mild symptoms, but it can be deadly for some, especially the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Most people infected with the virus recover in a matter of weeks.
Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, the former vice president, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are competing for 136 delegates in Ohio, which also has primaries in congressional and and state legislative races, as well as local-issue votes to be decided.
The recommendation could mean polling places will not open Tuesday, despite LaRose’s assurances as recently as Monday morning that voting was ready to go forward.
“Suspending in-person voting is a serious matter, and we have tried to do everything we could to avoid that,” LaRose said. State officials said they had been getting calls from concerned voters and poll workers.
A Democratic candidate in a contested congressional primary expressed support for the move, saying by email that public health must come first.
“As a candidate, changing the date of the election is an unexpected challenge, but it is nothing compared to the importance of community safety and minimizing lives lost,” said Kate Schroder, who is seeking the nomination to challenge 12-term Republican Rep. Steve Chabot in Ohio’s 1st Congressional District, in the Cincinnati area. “I wholeheartedly support Governor DeWine’s recommendation.”
Louisiana and Georgia earlier postponed presidential primaries scheduled for March.
LaRose on Sunday had issued a directive that required all 88 county boards of elections to offer a curbside voting option Tuesday to concerned voters and to accept absentee ballots through most of Election Day.
Absentee ballots would be accepted through the new election date if a judge upholds the state’s request for a delay. That action could come Monday night.
Voting rights advocates had raised issues that the earlier steps weren’t enough.
“As a result of last-minute polling location changes and fears around contracting the coronavirus, an increased number of voters were in need of absentee ballots on very short notice,” representatives of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the civil rights group Demos, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law wrote in a letter to LaRose on Sunday.
The groups said short staffing at county boards, slow postal delivery times and the number of steps needed for a voter to request an absentee ballot were making it “all but impossible” for voters to meet the absentee ballot deadline. Absentee ballot voting has been underway for a month.
They reported that 2,603 combined absentee ballots were requested from Montgomery, Summit and Lucas counties, three of the state’s largest, and only 29 had been returned and designated countable.
A Democrat who is exploring a run for governor in 2022 disagreed with efforts to delay the primary, saying although he believed DeWine was acting for public health, he is concerned about calling off scheduled voting with so little notice.
“I worry that the precedent could haunt future elections by people who are not motivated by the same public good,” Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said in an email. “I also believe that there is no reason to assume that June 2nd in-person voting won’to be delayed.”
He also urged that absentee ballots be mailed out by LaRose’s office.