Ohio officials have announced a lawsuit to extend voting until June 2, 2020, and to suspend the state's in-person primary election scheduled for Tuesday.
Gov. Mike DeWine says that a private party will sue the state in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas on Monday, representing voters over 65, immunocompromised residents and people otherwise at risk of coronavirus.
Neither the governor nor the Secretary of State have the ability to change Ohio's election, a power that lies rather with the state legislature. But DeWine recommends the state allow absentee voting through mail until June 2, with no in-person voting allowed until then.
"We should not be in a situation where the votes of these individuals, who are conflicted, are suppressed," DeWine said at a Monday press conferences.
Florida, Illinois and Arizona also hold primaries on March 17, but have so far pushed ahead with in-person voting. Kentucky, which was supposed to vote May 19, announced that the state will now hold its election June 23.
After the CDC changed its guidelines on mass gatherings, DeWine says the state will refine its public health order to ban groups of more than 50 people, down from 100. On Monday, the Trump administration went even further to urge people to avoid gatherings of over 10.
“We cannot conduct this election tomorrow… and conform to these guidelines," DeWine said.
The announcement represents an about-face for the governor, who has insisted repeatedly that Ohio's March primary election would move forward, and that polling places were not subject to gathering bans.
But DeWine says that people should not have to choose between their health and their constitutional right to vote.
"We cannot tell people that they really need to stay home, that the risk is high, and at the same time tell them to go vote," DeWine said.
It's ultimately up to a judge to decide if Ohio's election moves forward as planned. If the lawsuit is successful, Ohio would join Louisiana and Georgia in delaying voting over coronavirus concerns.
Polling was set to open Tuesday at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. Early in-person voting and mail-in voting has been going on for a month, and closed Monday afternoon.
While 10 Democrats had appeared on Ohio's presidential primary ballot, only Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden remain viable candidates for the state's 136 delegates. Primaries were also set to determine contenders for Ohio's 16 U.S. House seats, several state Supreme Court seats, and the state legislature.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose says he supports the governor's decision, and will ask the Ohio Attorney General to not contest the lawsuit. He says his office will continue to accept and process absentee ballots through June 2, and that all votes already submitted will count.
"There is only one thing more important in my mind more important than a free and fair election, and that is the health and safety of our fellow Ohioans," LaRose said. "The health and safety of our fellow Ohioans is not negotiable."
Asked why June 2 was the day selected for Ohio's new in-person election, DeWine explained that the presidential primary requires delegates to be chosen ahead of party conventions. Democrats are set to select their candidate in July.
Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper says he was consulted on the decision, and defers to the expertise of health officials.
"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," Pepper says.
Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken said they fully support the recommendation, and will work to help disseminate information on the new primary date and voting rules.
After calling Monday for a nationwide expansion of absentee and mail-in voting, the League of Women Voters released a statement praising the decision by DeWine and LaRose. "It is imperative that voters feel safe when participating in our elections and now is the time to assure voters that they can cast their ballots safely and with confidence," the statement read.
The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus says it will "ultimately save lives."
But Cincinnati mayor John Cranley said he "respectfully disagreed," criticizing the short notice and saying he worried about the precedent it would set. He called on the state to mail absentee ballots to every registered voter in Ohio.
Ohio's Coronavirus Response
The Ohio Department of Health reports that there are now 50 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 12 counties. Of those, 14 people have been hospitalized.
The age range of patients is 14-86 years old, with a median age of 51. Of the patients, 20 are female and 30 are male.
Tuesday is also St. Patrick's Day, but the state has taken several steps to prevent large crowds during the holiday. Beyond the ban of mass gatherings, the Health Department issued an order closing down all bars and dine-in restaurants. That order, which went into effect at 9 p.m. Sunday, does not affect takeout or delivery services.
Health Department director Amy Acton says that banks, grocery stores and other critical infrastructure will remain open.
DeWine announced additional orders closing fitness centers, gyms, public recreation centers, movie theaters, bowling alleys, indoor water and trampoline parks. Those closures take effect at the end of business Monday.
The Ohio Department of Health makes the following recommendations to protect yourself from illness:
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; dry hands with a clean towel or air dry hands.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are unavailable.
- Cover your mouth with a tissue or sleeve when sneezing or coughing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Avoid contact with people who are sick.
Ohio's coronavirus call center is open to answer questions from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The hotline number is 1-833-4-ASK-ODH or 1-833-427-5634.
This story will be updated with more information.