Coronavirus In Ohio: Politicians And Election Officials Take Stock After Primary Delay

Mar 17, 2020

Ohio voters didn’t head to the polls Tuesday, and it’s still not completely clear when they will. 

As state officials wrestled with the growing threat of COVID-19 coronavirus, a Franklin County judge shot down a lawsuit, backed by Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose, that would have delayed Ohio's primary election until June.

Hours later, the Ohio Department of Health took a more drastic measure: Closing polls with a public health emergency.

As the election went from on with precautions, to off, to back on, and then off again in the course of a single day, officials gave off contradicting messages - to constituents, poll workers and each other.

Franklin County Board of Elections director Ed Leonard apologized Tuesday to volunteers for the "communication breakdown that left you uncertain or conflicted as to the status of your Election Day service."

“You know, as I’ve told a couple of people, it’s certainly like no election that I’ve ever prepared for,” says Aaron Sellers, spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections.

Lots of ballots have already been cast. Sellers says almost 50,000 people in Franklin County already voted absentee by mail or in-person at the board of elections on Morse Road.

“Those ballots and all the information and zip drives and all that stuff will be stored in a double locked voter vault,” Sellers says. “That would need a Republican and a Democrat to enter, and it will be there for safe keeping until the second.”

Following the public health order, LaRose issued a directive to county boards of elections setting a date for in-person voting on June 2. Under his instructions, the window for registered voters to request absentee ballots would re-open until May 26, while voters who weren’t previously registered for the primary won’t be granted extra time to get in on the election.

But state lawmakers appear ready to weigh in on the matter when they return to the capitol.

Speaking Monday night, LaRose acknowledged the right to set the date of an election rests with the Ohio General Assembly, but he insisted delay was necessary.

“Obviously, we can’t stand here and tell people over 65 that they should stay at home and at the same time tell Ohioans they should come out to vote,” LaRose explained.

House Speaker Larry Householder wants the General Assembly to move the election date “legally” when lawmakers return to Columbus. In a memo to representatives, Householder wrote that “no Ohio voter should ever wonder when they will have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.”

Separately, Senate President Larry Obhof emphasized his readiness to work with the governor and secretary of state.

For congressional candidate Morgan Harper, delay seems like the right course. The Democrat is in the midst of a primary challenge against Joyce Beatty, who has held the deep-blue 3rd congressional seat since 2013.

Last week, Harper began calling on state officials to extend the deadline for returning absentee ballots amid last-minute polling location changes and broader health concerns.

“I mean, that involved some confusion about just the information about how to continue to vote, but also this being an unprecedented health threat, and folks trying to figure that out,” Harper says. “That was something that we were trying to bring attention to—that this could impact peoples’ ability to turn out, and that didn’t seem like a fair position to put people in.”

In a statement, Beatty touted her vote to provide $8.3 billion in emergency COVID-19 funding and emphasized the need for balance.

“I have always said,” she wrote, “we must put health and safety first as well as preserving the right to vote.”

In the primary to face off against Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, the three Democrats in the contest issued statements with a range of responses.

Mike Larsen focused on the need for access to absentee voting. Jeff Sites said delay was necessary but it was mishandled and created “chaos and confusion.” The sharpest rebuke came from Shannon Freshour, who accused LaRose of disenfranchising voters, and said the delay was “a culmination of that effort wrapped around a public health crisis.”

With the election up in the air for now, WOSU asked Harper what she was doing to keep herself busy during social distancing.

“Nothing fun, no streaming recommendations,” she says with a laugh. “Honestly, have not gotten there yet. I am pausing a little bit—resting. Resting is in order, for sure. And just taking a little bit of a breath from what has been a quite busy nine months.”

A number of court cases have been filed in response to Ohio officials putting off Election Day, including one from the Ohio Democratic Party. That case, filed with the Ohio Supreme Court, asks that the election be conducted entirely by mail from this point forward. The party proposes giving voters until April 25 to request ballots and an April 28 deadline for having them in the mail.

State lawmakers plan to be back in session next week to consider how they want to proceed.

Meanwhile, three states vote as planned Tuesday: Florida, Arizona and Illinois.