Ohio primary called off at last minute because of health emergency

Contests in Illinois, Arizona and Florida were going ahead Tuesday as scheduled.
People cast their early votes for the Ohio Primary Election
A person wears protective gloves during early voting in the Ohio primary at the Board of Elections in Medina on Monday, March 16, 2020.Aaron Josefczyk / Reuters

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By Allan Smith

Ohio's Tuesday primary was called off at the last minute on Monday night because of a health emergency posed by the coronavirus.

The election was thrust into chaos on Monday after Gov. Mike DeWine said the state would not open polls because of the coronavirus outbreak. His comments come after a judge declined to postpone the contest until June.

"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," DeWine said in a statement posted to Twitter.

DeWine said that state Health Department Director Amy Acton would "order the polls closed as a health emergency."

Acton did just that late Monday night.

Primary contests in Illinois, Arizona and Florida were going ahead Tuesday as scheduled.

DeWine and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose filed a joint lawsuit Monday afternoon in order to get the election postponed. But Judge Richard Frye declined their request later Monday, saying that to postpone the vote would set a "terrible precedent," the Associated Press reported.

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"There are too many factors to balance in this uncharted territory to say that we ought to take it away from the Legislature and elected statewide officials, and throw it to a common pleas court judge in Columbus with 12 hours to go before the election," Frye added.

"The only thing more important than a free and fair election is the health and safety of Ohioans," DeWine and LaRose said in a joint statement after the decision. "The Ohio Department of Health and the CDC have advised against anyone gathering in groups larger than 50 people, which will occur if the election goes forward."

The Ohio secretary of state's office said all voters who have already cast early ballots or voted by mail will still have their ballots count, whether or not the election is delayed.

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Meanwhile, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee told reporters her state's Tuesday elections will go on as scheduled. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defended that choice, saying, "We're dealing with this in a thoughtful way but we're not going to panic."

"When you go and cancel that, the signal that sends is somehow we're paralyzed and I don't think that's the case,” DeSantis said.

Arizona Secretary of State Kate Hobbes also said that the state would not postpone Tuesday's primary.

"The longer we wait, the more difficult and dangerous it could become," she said in a statement.

The situation in Ohio comes as other states have delayed primaries and state party conventions, sports leagues have suspended competitions and bars, restaurants, schools and other entities have been ordered closed.

Further down the calendar, the current schedule for the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions this summer has come under question, as no clear timeline on the crisis exists. President Donald Trump said Monday that the outbreak could be contained by July, August or potentially later in the year.

Asked about the possibility of postponing elections, Trump told reporters he thought such measures were "unnecessary."

"I'd leave that up to the states, that's a big deal postponing an election," he said.

Soon after the push from Ohio leaders, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections said the state was moving forward with its Tuesday vote.

"As already noted, much of the voting for this election already has been done," the spokesman said. "Also, at this point there is no date in the foreseeable future when we can expect greater safety with any certainty. Taking action to move to an all-mail ballot system, as has been suggested by some media members, fails to take into account the needs of many disabled voters who are unable to cast paper ballots by mail."

Later Monday, Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams announced his state's primaries would be pushed back from May 19 to June 23.

On Sunday, former Vice President Joe Biden asked voters in the four primary states scheduled to weigh in this week to "please vote." At the time, all four states had already announced that the elections would go on as planned, but with added precautions taken.

Ali Vitali and Associated Press contributed.