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It’s not Election Day after all in Ohio, where a chaotic night gave way to closed polls and more uncertainty Tuesday morning.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine postponed the state’s primary late Monday after declaring the coronavirus was a “health emergency” that endangered the lives of thousands of poll workers and voters. The declaration ended a wild day and night that saw the election seemingly called off, reinstated by a judge and then called off again.
Anyone who didn’t get the word was greeted Tuesday morning by notices taped to the doors of polling places: “The health and safety of our poll workers and the voters are the priority. We are sorry for the inconvenience.”
Molly North said she learned of the postponement when she showed up before dawn at her polling place at Annunciation Catholic Church in Clifton, where she found other would-be voters wandering around the building, looking for a way in.
“It was otherworldly,” North said in a Facebook post. “I arrived at my polling location at 6:35, concluding my morning run there, with the intention to beat the crowds. It was dark. Several people were circling the building as confused as I was.”
Fairfield teacher Mark Braam, who was supposed to work the polls Tuesday, said he spent three hours training for the job Sunday and another two and a half hours setting up his polling place Monday. Then he got a call at 4:45 a.m. Tuesday telling him to stay home.
“Oddest (and shortest) paying official job I ever had,” Braam said in a Facebook post. “Happy ‘Not Election Day’ everybody!”
DeWine said Tuesday morning that all of the actions he’s taken in response to the coronavirus, from ordering the closing of bars and restaurants to postponing the election, were necessary to prevent the further spread of the virus and to protect the health of Ohioans. “We’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions over the past few weeks, but everything we’ve done has been about saving lives,” DeWine said. “If we don’t take these actions now, it’ll be too late.”
The postponement of the election didn’t happen without a fight. Critics took to social media late Monday and into Tuesday to complain DeWine’s action was unfair and possibly unconstitutional. Early Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court denied a legal challenge to the postponement filed by a candidate in Wood County, who said the delay violated election laws.
Only four justices participated in the ruling, which was issued without an opinion. More legal wrangling is expected today as the governor and others debate how and when the election should take place.
“This is not yet resolved,” said Ohio Rep. Allison Russo, a Columbus-area Democrat.
The governor’s announcement of the postponement followed a roller-coaster day that saw his initial attempt to shut down the election overruled by a Franklin County judge who didn’t want to stop the vote just hours before polls opened. After trying and failing to appeal the judge’s ruling late Monday night, DeWine turned to his health department director, Amy Acton, who used her authority to close the polls.
The on-again, off-again election left voters and poll workers confused and exasperated as they tried to plan for a complex, high-stakes election that might or might not actually happen.
“It’s very concerning,” said Kayla Forshey, a Hamilton County poll worker, late Monday night. “It was already worrisome enough with the virus going around. Now, here at the 11th hour, we’re getting conflicting reports whether or not to vote.”
Acton’s order late Monday appeared to resolve the immediate question of whether there would be an election or not, but it left open many more questions about what comes next.
DeWine, a Republican, had asked for the primary to be postponed until June 2, but some candidates and Democratic Party officials said they didn’t want to wait that long. Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said the election could be conducted entirely by mail with absentee ballots, but other Democrats said that would be unfair and would likely disenfranchise thousands of voters.
The stakes are high with so many local, state and federal elections on the ballot, most notably the Democratic presidential primary between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Waiting an additional 11 weeks could render Ohio’s presidential primary almost meaningless, given that so many other states are expected to vote before then. The economy, which is in a tailspin thanks to fears over the coronavirus, also could become a more significant factor in some races, such as the Issue 7 tax levy for public transportation in Hamilton County.
Many candidates expressed concern about running campaigns for so much longer than expected. A delay would mean they must keep their staffs, volunteers and fundraising operations going until the new Election Day, whenever that turns out to be.
“It’s like running a marathon and getting to mile 26, and someone saying, ‘Nevermind, you have 11 more miles to go,” said Jared Kamrass, a political strategist who represents Democratic candidates and progressive causes. “I think some candidates will reevaluate if they can keep going.”
Pepper on Tuesday decried the “chaos, confusion and mixed messages of the past 24 hours” and said Democrats will push to reschedule the primary for earlier than June 2. He also warned that Democrats would go to court if DeWine and other state officials attempted to force unreasonable or unconstitutional changes to the way the election is run.
“Yesterday’s postponement does not create unchecked authority with the governor or secretary of state to run a new election,” Pepper said.
Democrats weren’t the only ones worried about the implications of DeWine’s decision. Joe Dills, who’s running against Jean Schmidt and Dillon Blevins in the GOP primary for Ohio’s 65th House District, called the postponement “an irresponsible decision” that defied a legitimate court order.
“It disenfranchises people across the state, has generated distrust in our institutions in the midst of crisis and sets us on a path of uncertainty that puts us all even more on edge,” Dills said.
Keep checking with The Enquirer for the latest news on Ohio’s primary chaos.
Sharon Coolidge, Michael Perry, Scott Wartman, Julia Fair, Jesse Balmert and Jackie Borchardt contributed to this report
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