WASHINGTON/COLUMBUS, OHIO – The already topsy-turvy Democratic presidential contest is being upended again by the coronavirus, as states weigh whether to delay balloting and prevent in-person voting.
Monday evening, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine invoked a health emergency to close the polls in the state’s primary Tuesday, after a judge rejected his recommendation to postpone voting because of the coronavirus threat.
Polls were set to open at 6:30 a.m., but DeWine said in a statement late Monday that the state’s health director would issue an order closing them while officials seek a remedy through the courts “to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity.”
DeWine had asked a court to delay his state’s primary to June 2, and two people older than 65 sued, saying they shouldn’t have to choose between their health and voting. But Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye said it would be a “terrible precedent” for a court to step in at the last minute to rewrite the election code.
DeWine then said the state health director, Amy Acton, would order the polls closed as a health emergency.
Kentucky on Monday delayed its primary from May 19 to June 23, Secretary of State Michael Adams announced in a video posted on Twitter. Adams said that he and Gov. Andy Beshear had made the decision, adding, “my hope is that this delay will allow us to have a normal election.”
The debate over whether to hold the elections comes as President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force is recommending people limit gatherings to just 10 people for the next eight weeks.
Ohio is one of four states to hold primaries on Tuesday. Illinois and Arizona said they would hold the vote as planned. Florida has not indicated any change despite requests from a U.S. representative.
The Illinois board of elections said in a statement that it had decided to proceed because there is “no date in the foreseeable future when we can expect greater safety with any certainty.” It added that moving to an all-mail ballot system “fails to take into account the needs of many disabled voters who are unable to cast paper ballots by mail.”
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said the state was keeping to its schedule because there is “no guarantee” there will be a safer time to hold the primary in the near future. “The longer we wait, the more difficult and dangerous this will become,” she said.
U.S. Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida urged Gov. Ron DeSantis on Twitter to push back the state’s election, saying she’s “concerned about disenfranchising voices across this state.”
Hundreds of polling places in Arizona, Ohio, Illinois and Florida have been moved, leading to concerns that voters might not know where to go. Election officials worry that volunteer poll workers, who skew older, won’t show up. And some fear turnout could be dampened by anxiety over going out in public.
Already, Georgia, Wyoming and Louisiana pushed back nominating contests scheduled for March and April.
State elections officials, governors and the two top candidates — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — are urging voters in Tuesday’s primary states to participate in the elections, as long as they take precautions. Those include voting early or by mail or dropping off ballots curbside, where available, and maintaining six feet of distance from other voters while standing in line.
“The right to vote is the most sacred American right there is,” Biden tweeted Sunday. “State election officials are working closely with public health officials to hold safe elections. If you are feeling healthy, not showing symptoms, and not at risk of being exposed to COVID-19, please vote on Tuesday.”
Although with 889 pledged delegates, Biden is still far from the 1,991 delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination at the convention this summer, a strong showing Tuesday could help him build an insurmountable lead over Sanders.
Still, nothing in the Democratic contest has gone as predicted so far. First, problems with a vote-counting app marred the reporting of results in Iowa. Later, Biden surged back to front-runner status after performing poorly in the first three states.
Some officials say concerns over Tuesday’s primaries are overblown.
In Florida, Democrats have identified more than 126,000 voters who have not yet cast their ballots who are going to be affected by poll closures and relocations because of the coronavirus crisis and may not have the information they need from the state to vote on Tuesday.
In a statement to reporters, the state party urged DeSantis to provide a complete list of polling place changes and updated voting locations so that they can share it with their volunteers.
“There is still time for Governor DeSantis to do the right thing and provide voters with an official updated list of polling site closures and re-locations — we urge him to do so,” the party said.
DeSantis’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In Illinois, concerns about the virus may have contributed to an uptick in early voting and voting by mail. The city of Chicago broke a record set in World War II for mail-in ballots, while early voting was higher than the last three presidential primaries.
Election officials in Maricopa County, the largest county in Arizona, decided to close 80 polling places and designate the remaining 151 as “vote centers” where anyone from around the county can cast a ballot. Only Democrats will be affected, as the state Republican and Libertarian parties canceled their primaries months ago.
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