Ohio voting postponed but other primaries today go on despite coronavirus risks

Delaying the primaries does not set a precedent for President Donald Trump to delay the November presidential election. But it could save lives.
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Chicago residents line up for early voting at the Roden Library on March 16, 2020, in Chicago.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
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By Joshua A. Douglas, law professor at the University of Kentucky

UPDATE (March 17, 2020, 09:15 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated after the Ohio governor's attempt to delay his state primary was successful at the last minute following a state health emergency declaration.

It is time to delay Tuesday's Democratic primaries.

I do not say that lightly. It would create chaos and confusion. Yet the chaos and confusion of running the election during the coronavirus national emergency — without the ability of all voters to mail in a ballot — could be much starker.

Voters in Arizona, Florida and Illinois are about to head to the polls in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and national crisis. Ohio was able to postpone its primary. The governor announced Monday that the state cannot conduct in-person elections that meet Centers for Disease Control guidelines. (He sought a judicial order to postpone the vote, but Monday night a judge denied his request. Later that night, the state health director declared a health emergency and ordered the polls closed. Early Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court allowed the state to postpone the vote.) Meanwhile, all four states have been scrambling to run the election during this crisis.

Holding a vote, however, is a mistake that will endanger poll workers, voters and our democracy. Election results should reflect the will of the entire electorate. The unfortunate reality is that Tuesday’s primaries surely will see reduced turnout.

Instead, the governors and chief election officials in these states should all postpone their elections for a month or longer — just as Georgia and Louisiana have done. During that time, the states can pass emergency legislation or seek judicial orders that would allow them to offer no-excuse absentee balloting for any voter, even if the initial deadline has passed. Ohio on Monday did something like this because it extended the voting through June 2 — which would allow voters to make additional absentee ballot requests.

That way democracy can be open to all voters even during this crisis. Further, any votes already cast through early voting should still count, as Georgia officials have confirmed is the case for its delayed election.

This solution would address the myriad problems that holding primary elections right now would create. Consider that the average age of poll workers in these states is above 60 — which puts them in the higher risk category for the coronavirus. Will poll workers show up?

Ohio was already struggling to find poll workers. Just a few days ago The Columbus Dispatch noted that state election officials were “frantically” trying to find people to work the polls and suggested that they might even recruit people who show up to vote to stay the rest of the day to help out. That is no way to run an election.

Election officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, the state’s largest county, tried to mitigate this problem by saying they would automatically mail everyone a ballot. But the state attorney general sued, arguing that the move would violate state law, and a court agreed. The county then announced that it would have to close a third of all polling places because it could not ensure the safety of the “high touch surfaces” in those polling locations, with one official almost breaking down in tears because of the consequences.

Ohio and Florida also moved polling locations away from nursing homes and other care facilities. Though election officials have tried to notify voters, it is likely that some people will show up only to learn that they have gone to the wrong place. That could lead to disenfranchisement if they do not make it to the correct voting location in time.

And the real unknown is this: Will voters turn out? All four states allow for no-excuse absentee voting, but the deadlines have passed for voters to request a mail-in ballot. Yet voters could not have known even a week or two ago that they should have requested to vote by mail.

Last Friday, the chief election officials in all four states issued a statement saying that “we are confident that voters in our states can safely and securely cast their ballots in this election, and that otherwise healthy poll workers can and should carry out their patriotic duties on Tuesday.” Though I hope they are correct, many people may fear otherwise.

Illinois’s governor is shutting down all bars and restaurants. The same thing has occurred in Ohio. How are voters supposed to feel secure about going to the polls amid this growing crisis? Elderly voters and those who are already immune-compromised may be particularly reluctant to head out. No one should have to choose between their health and their fundamental right to vote.

It is, of course, deeply troubling and chaotic to postpone an election, especially the day before. Yet localities have done this in past when the circumstances warranted it. On Sept. 11, 2001, New York City delayed its primaries — which had already begun that morning. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans postponed its local elections in 2006 for two months after flood waters devastated the city in the fall of 2005.

Just as crucially, delaying the primaries does not set a precedent for President Donald Trump to delay the November presidential election. Only Congress can set the presidential election date. We must act now to ensure that this crisis does not repeat itself in November by ensuring universal vote-by-mail across the country.

But the immediate problem is Tuesday's primaries. States should act now to protect our democracy.