Ohio Democrats object to delay of state’s primary election

By Julie Carr Smyth and Dan Sewell - Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Democrats expressed frustration Tuesday and said they were weighing their options after Ohio’s Republican elected leaders postponed primary election voting amid coronavirus concerns.

The state’s top health official, Dr. Amy Acton, cited the need to contain the coronavirus in ordering the polls closed hours before voters were supposed to cast ballots Tuesday morning.

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine announced the decision late Monday after a judge ruled against his request that in-person voting be delayed to avoid crowding at polling places that could expose more people and deter older voters.

While DeWine has received wide praise and national attention for his aggressive response to the coronavirus outbreak, he faced second-guessing over Monday’s actions.

The Ohio Democratic Party was weighing its options for challenging DeWine’s call to put off in-person voting until June 2 for Democratic president and other races. That would force Democrats in primaries to try to stretch resources for weeks more of campaigning against one another instead of allowing the nominees to focus on their general election battles.

“The Ohio Democratic Party strongly supports concluding the primary election earlier than June 2. Extending for that long is highly problematic for any number of reasons, and it is not at all clear that in-person voting will be possible on that date anyway,” state party Chairman David Pepper said in a statement critical of the “confusion and chaos” of the late Monday actions.

Pepper added that the “postponement does not create unchecked authority with the governor or secretary of state to run a new election.” The “dangerous precedent of postponing an election” should require convening of the state Legislature to address the situation.

DeWine said late Monday that Secretary of State Frank LaRose would try to find a way to “extend voting options” through the courts, after Franklin County Judge Richard Frye ruled against them.

“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 during a hearing on the request.

Frye suggested DeWine should have used his power to reconvene the Legislature to change the law instead.

The Ohio League of Women Voters also said it would push for changes to the state’s absentee ballot process and other election changes as a result of the primary postponement.

Neither DeWine nor LaRose, both Republicans, has the power to postpone an election on his own under standing Ohio law.

They lamented Frye’s ruling in a statement, underscoring that they had acted out of concern for older voters’ health and federal guidelines that have recommended against gatherings of groups of 50 or more.

State officials had also said they had been getting calls from concerned voters and poll workers.

Most people who come down with COVID-19 have relatively mild symptoms, but it can be deadly for some, especially the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Most people infected with the virus recover in a matter of weeks.

Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, the former vice president, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are competing for 136 delegates in Ohio, which also has primaries in congressional and and state legislative races, as well as local races and issues to be decided.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio called Tuesday on the governor, the secretary of state and the Legislature to expand access to absentee voting.

“We must be proactive and implement long-term solutions that keep Ohioans safe without jeopardizing the integrity of our democracy,” said Freda Levenson, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio.

The Ohio League of Women Voters also said it would push for changes to the state’s absentee ballot process and other election changes as a result of the primary postponement.

A coalition of voting rights groups said short staffing at county boards, slow postal delivery times and the number of steps needed for a voter to request an absentee ballot were making it “all but impossible” for voters to meet the absentee ballot deadline. Absentee ballot voting has been underway for a month.

They reported that 2,603 combined absentee ballots were requested from Montgomery, Summit and Lucas counties, three of the state’s largest, and only 29 had been returned and designated countable.

By Julie Carr Smyth and Dan Sewell

Associated Press