Patrick Lathem rolls a packed polling place out of Two Ridge Presbyterian church in Wintersville, Ohio, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Ohio's presidential primary was postponed Tuesday amid coronavirus concerns. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Ohio Democratic Party sues over delay of primary election

March 17, 2020 - 7:50 pm

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Politicians of all stripes expressed frustration Tuesday after Ohio's primary was postponed until June by the state's elected officials amid concerns attendance at polling places would contribute to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ohio Democratic Party sued Tuesday afternoon over Secretary of State Frank LaRose's decision to set a new date, saying that power rests only with the Legislature.

The state's top health official, Dr. Amy Acton, cited the need to contain the pandemic in calling off the election hours before voters were supposed to cast ballots Tuesday morning.

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine announced the decision late Monday after a judge rejected an administration-backed request that in-person voting be delayed to avoid crowding at polling places that could expose people and deter older voters. LaRose quickly ordered all county election boards to comply.

DeWine and LaRose, a Republican, defended their action in a statement Tuesday night, saying it saved lives and will allow both absentee ballots and in-person voting.

Allowing the election would have “dangerously advanced the spread of coronavirus across Ohio,” they said in a statement. “It is abundantly clear that it would have been impossible to carry out a fair, accessible, and safe election today.”

Most people who contract 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.

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

Republican House Speaker Larry Householder decried “unprecedented chaos and confusion” and the undermining of Ohio's “system of government,” saying he was contacting legislators about their ability to attend a session to “legally” address the primary.

Householder, of Glenford, said he has asked Attorney General Dave Yost about exempting legislators from current restrictions on gatherings of 50 or more.

His Democratic counterpart, House Minority Emilia Sykes, of Akron, said the Legislature should have been convened before the scheduled primary.

President Donald Trump, asked during a White House briefing about DeWine's decision, praised the governor for “doing a great job” during the crisis, although he said he prefers to see elections go on as scheduled.

“I just think an election is a very special thing," Trump said. “That would be a decision that would be made by him. He felt it was necessary. ... Somebody's challenging it, so the courts will ultimately decide.”

The Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, are competing for 136 delegates in Ohio. Congressional, state and local races are also at issue.

The Ohio Democratic Party's lawsuit said LaRose was “patently and unambiguously without jurisdiction and legal authority” in setting a new primary date.

The lawsuit asks the state Supreme Court to reject LaRose's directive setting the June 2 date and order Ohio to accept absentee ballots through April 28, including setting up secure receptacles outside county elections board to receive those ballots “24 hours a day.” The lawsuit doesn't address choosing a new day for in-person voting.

State party Chairman David Pepper issued a statement critical of the “confusion and chaos” of the late Monday actions and urging a conclusion to the election before 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,” he said.

Nikki Foster, a veteran Air Force pilot in a Democratic primary against health-care advocate Kate Schroder to face 12-term GOP U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot this fall, called the changing plans “a roller coaster of emotions.”

“Being a military combat pilot, it's not uncommon for us to have a storm pop up and you have to fly around it or figure out what's next,” she said.

Her campaign is exploring ways to interact with voters without large public meetings, probably by using Facebook and other social media, she said.

LaRose said Monday that June 2 was chosen to give enough time to ride out the worst of the virus while also meeting Democrats' deadlines for designating delegates to their national nominating convention.

The closure of election sites in Madison and Athens counties over worries there had been virus exposure highlighted the potential risks. A poll worker in Madison County had reported a fever and other symptoms but was ultimately diagnosed with something else, officials said.

Neither DeWine nor LaRose has the power to postpone an election on his own, so their wish to delay the primary initially went through the courts, before the health emergency was declared.

In ruling against them, Franklin County Judge Richard Frye suggested DeWine should have used his power to reconvene the Legislature to change the law, rather than turning to the courts.

Agreeing to their suggested course of action, he said, would have "upset the apple cart in a terrible precedent.”

They lamented Frye's ruling in a statement, underscoring that they acted out of concern for older voters' health and in response to federal guidelines. The health director's order invoked a health emergency.

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Sewell reported from Cincinnati. Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins and Kantele Franko contributed in Columbus.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Follow Julie Carr Smyth at https://www.twitter.com/jcarrsmyth and Dan Sewell at https://www.twitter.com/dansewell.

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