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Ohio Primary Postponed At Last Minute Due To Coronavirus After Legal Struggle

"I Voted" stickers are seen at a polling place Sunday in Steubenville, Ohio.
"I Voted" stickers are seen at a polling place Sunday in Steubenville, Ohio.

Updated Tuesday at 8:33 a.m. ET

After intense legal wrangling, Ohio postponed its Tuesday primary election due to the coronavirus outbreak just hours before polls were set to open.

Early Tuesday morning, the state Supreme Court denied a judge's attempt to let the primary continue after Gov. Mike DeWine had asked the court to delay the primary until June 2.

Late Monday evening, DeWine sought to bypass the judge by announcingthat Ohio Health Director Amy Acton would order the polls closed as a health emergency.

"[T]o conduct an election tomorrow would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus," DeWine said on Twitter.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose followed up with guidanceto all county boards of elections in Ohio that they "must post notice on their websites, social media, at the board of elections, and at polling places that in-person voting for the March 17, 2020 Presidential Primary Election is suspended."

Three other states, Arizona, Florida and Illinois are still holding primaries on Tuesday.

Ohio's announcement came at roughly the same time that President Trump was laying out new guidelines for Americans that include avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people for the rest of the month.

In a joint statement after the court's decision, DeWine and LaRose said that the public health warnings to limit gatherings means "it simply isn't possible to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans."

Unlike many states, Ohio's governor and secretary of state don't have the power to delay the election on their own. Instead, with the approval of both political parties, they supported a lawsuit filed by people who believe they're vulnerable to the virus and did not plan to contest the suit.

"People should not have to choose between their rights and their health," said DeWine earlier in the day.

A number of voting-rights advocacy groups also supported the decision, including the League of Women Voters and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Also on Monday, Kentucky postponed its May 19 primary to June 23. Unlike Ohio, Kentucky state law allows the secretary of state and governor to jointly decide to change the date of an election due to a declared state of emergency.

A potential 'lifesaver'

In a statement, LaRose said the sudden announcement less than 24 hours before the election was made after "new information" about the virus led the Ohio Department of Health to recommend that all Ohioans age 65 and older to self-quarantine.

Under the plan he is proposing, absentee voting would be allowed to continue until June 2, and all votes that have already been cast would be counted as normal.

President Trump said Monday that he thought postponing the primaries was "unnecessary" but also said the decision was ultimately up to the respective states.

Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign said in a statement, "we will follow the guidance offered by state public health officials for how to best ensure that their populations are looked after while encouraging participation in our democracy."

If a court allows Ohio's proposed delay, the state will become the fourth state to postpone its primary due to the coronavirus. Louisiana announced late last week it would push its April primary to June, while Georgia announced over the weekend that its March 24 primary would be moved to May. Separately, Alabama is considering postponing its March 31 U.S. Senate primary runoff.

"In retrospect, it may be that we view these delays as being lifesavers," said Charles Stewart, an elections expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "On the other hand, it could be that we view the delays as being overreaches. We just don't know at this point."
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