COLUMBUS — Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton late Monday night ordered Tuesday’s polls closed in an effort to protect voters from the coronavirus.
“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,” Gov. Mike DeWine said in a statement at 10 p.m. “As such, Health Director Dr. Amy Acton will order the polls closed as a health emergency. While the polls will be closed tomorrow, Secretary of State Frank LaRose will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity.”
DeWine and LaRose made the recommendation earlier Monday to postpone in-person voting for the scheduled Tuesday, March 17 primary until Tuesday, June 2. Under the plan, requesting an absentee ballot and voting by absentee would have been permitted to continue between now and then. Votes that had been cast early would have remained cast.
But neither the governor nor the secretary of state have the authority to extend an election. A lawsuit, supported by the state, was filed that afternoon in Franklin County Common Pleas Court by citizens who were conflicted about voting. Judge Richard Frye denied the request Monday night.
“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.
The officials’ recommendation came a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its guidelines to advise against gatherings of 50 people. The governor said he would modify the state’s previous order, which restricts groups to 100 people, in order to comply to that.
“It is clear that tomorrow’s in-person voting does not conform, and cannot conform, with these CDC guidelines. We cannot conduct this election tomorrow — in-person voting for 13 hours — and conform to these guidelines,” he said during the daily press conference.
Acton reported that as of Monday Ohio had 50 positive cases of COVID-19, with patients ranging in age from 14 to 86.
She’s been urging high-risk groups — particularly those over the age of 65 — to stay home, unless absolutely necessary, during the outbreak. She said others at increased risk include those who are immuno-compromised; people with medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes or obesity; patients undergoing cancer treatment; and pregnant women.
DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said they received calls from Ohioans who were conflicted about showing up to vote Tuesday. The callers said they were scared for their health.
“I talked to people who had voted every election in their lives and were going to skip tomorrow out of their health concerns,” Husted said.
“We cannot tell people … that they really, really need to stay home and that it’s in the best interest of their health, that the risk is high — and at the same time, tell them to go vote,” DeWine said. “We should not force them to make this choice — a choice between their health and their constitutional rights and their duties as American citizens. Further, we should not be in a situation where the votes of these individuals who are conflicted are suppressed.”
LaRose said they’ve been trying to avoid suspending the election, and that experts had, over the last week, said voting would be safe, if precautions were taken.
“We were proceeding on that course. Many thousands of very dedicated Ohioans were working hard to make that happen. Thank you to them for their patriotism and their dedication,” he continued. “Now the advice of our public health officials has evolved with this public health emergency and we know that it would not be safe. And there is only one thing in mind, more important than a free and fair election, and that is the health and safety of our fellow Ohioans. It’s not negotiable.”
Contact these reporters at 937-372-4444. The Associated Press contributed to this report.