Ohio health chief to order polls closed amid coronavirus


By Julie Carr Smyth and Dan Sewell - The Associated Press



COLUMBUS — Ohio’s top health official plans to order the polls closed hours before voters were supposed to cast ballots in the state’s presidential primary.

Gov. Mike DeWine announced the decision late Monday after a judge had ruled against his request that in-person voting be delayed in an effort to avoid crowding at polling places.

“During this time when we face an unprecedented public health crisis, to conduct an election tomorrow would would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at a unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus,” he said in a statement. “As such, Health Director Dr. Amy Acton will order the polls closed as a health emergency.”

Ohio judge rejected a request late Monday to postpone the state’s primary amid concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, but it was not clear if that would be the final word hours before polls were scheduled to open.

Judge Richard Frye ruled against a motion backed by Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who earlier had backed an effort to push in-person voting back to June 2 to avoid crowds at polling places.

The 11th hour maneuvering was causing confusion: Some candidates had already brought suits aimed at keeping the election on track, but boards of elections had begun alerting poll workers they could stay home before Frye ruled.

“I’m very reluctant to undermine (state election law) and say, well, we’ll have a judge in Columbus rewrite the election code, reset the election for some arbitrary date in the future and upset the apple cart in a terrible precedent,” Frye said during a hearing on the request.

Frye suggested DeWine should have used his power to reconvene the Legislature to change the law instead.

Ohio Supreme Court spokesman Ed Miller said that court was watching late Monday for a possible appeal.

“There is a lot of confusion,” said Aaron Sellers, a spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections in Columbus.

Neither DeWine nor LaRose, both Republicans, has the power to postpone an election on his own under standing Ohio law.

They lamented Frye’s ruling in a statement, underscoring that they had acted out of concern for older voters’ health and federal guidelines that have recommended against gatherings of groups of 50 or more.

“The only thing more important than a free and fair election is the health and safety of Ohioans,” the statement read. “Logistically, under these extraordinary circumstances, it simply isn’t possible to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans. They mustn’t be forced to choose between their health and exercising their constitutional rights.”

State officials had also said they had been getting calls from concerned voters and poll workers.

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.

Frye praised that move, and other efforts by LaRose, during Monday’s hearing — but he said the decision ultimately sits with state lawmakers.

“I’m glad the secretary of state’s anxious about the public health of the voters, but I think he’s done everything that he thought that was appropriate and within his authority,” the judge said.

A Democratic candidate in a contested congressional primary expressed support for the move, saying by email that public health must come first.

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, called it an “unexpected challenge” but “nothing compared to the importance of community safety and minimizing lives lost.”

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.

A coalition of voting rights 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 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.

By Julie Carr Smyth and Dan Sewell

The Associated Press