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Late orders lead to confusion, closing of polls in Ohio

DeWine gets his wish; poll voting delayed to June 2
Posted: 2:52 PM, Mar 16, 2020
Updated: 2020-03-17 17:20:55-04
Mike DeWine
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CINCINNATI — Editor’s note: With our coronavirus coverage, our goal is not to alarm you but to equip you with the information you need. We will try to keep things in context and focus on helping you make decisions. See a list of resources and frequently asked questions at the end of this story.

Some confused Ohioans arrived at the polls Tuesday morning to vote or to work only to be surprised to find notices on the door that the election had been postponed.

Clearly, not everyone stayed up past 1 a.m. when the Ohio Supreme Court officially declared an end to a madcap evening of events and effectively allowed Gov. Mike DeWine to get what he wanted: to postpone voting at the polls until June 2.

Many Ohioans presumably went to bed before 10:12 p.m. when DeWine announced that Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, would use her authority to close the polls by declaring a health emergency due to the coronavirus crisis.

That happened after DeWine defied a Franklin County judge's order and announced, along with Secretary of State Frank LaRose, that the election would be postponed.

DeWine’s statement read: “During this time when we face an unprecedented public health crisis, to conduct an election tomorrow would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at a unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus. As such, Health Director Dr. Amy Acton will order the polls closed as a health emergency. While the polls will be closed tomorrow, Secretary of State Frank LaRose will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity.”

To that end, LaRose directed county boards of elections Tuesday morning that the new date for the primary would be June 2 and announced that voters may request absentee ballots from now until May 26 at VoteOhio.gov. Ballots must be returned by June 1 to be counted.

In the meantime, some poll workers said they were confused by robocalls first telling them the election was off, and then telling them it was still on.

LaRose explained to CNN why DeWine turned to Acton rather than pursue relief from another court late Monday after Franklin County Judge Richard Frye, a Democrat, refused to postpone the primary.

"Appealing to courts in the middle of the night would create more uncertainty," LaRose said. "The governor's decision, I think, was a wise one, to create some finality here so that poll workers know we're not going to order them to go to the polls when it's detrimental to their health."

Before and after that, the timeline for the chaotic off-and-on election went something like this:

3 p.m.: DeWine announces he wants to delay the election because of possible danger to voters and poll workers.

5 p.m.: The state backs a lawsuit by an elderly Franklin County couple who feared contracting COVID-19 and sought to postpone the primary.

7 p.m.: The Franklin County judge rejects the suit, saying it was too late with polls scheduled to open in less than 12 hours.

10:12 p.m. DeWine issues statement that Acton would declare a "health emergency."'

Midnight: The Ohio Supreme Court intervenes in another lawsuit filed by a candidate seeking to postpone voting, first requiring the state to respond before 1:30 a.m., then issuing an unsigned decision rejecting the complaint.

READ more details about the lawsuits and the Ohio Supreme Court ruling at Cleveland,com.

In an earlier joint statement Monday evening, DeWine and LaRose stressed the importance of health and public safety for Ohioans.

"The Ohio Department of Health and the CDC have advised against anyone gathering in groups larger than 50 people, which will occur if the election goes forward," the statement said. "Additionally, Ohioans over 65 and those with certain health conditions have been advised to limit their nonessential contact with others, affecting their ability to vote or serve as poll workers. Logistically, under these extraordinary circumstances, it simply isn’t possible to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans. They mustn’t be forced to choose between their health and exercising their constitutional rights."

DeWine had announced earlier that he didn't have legal authority to close the polls himself.

DeWine said he and his cabinet reached the decision after fielding a week of calls from Ohioans who were concerned that voting could expose them to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that had already prompted Ohio to close restaurant dining rooms, bars, schools and more.

People over 65, people with compromised immune systems and people with existing respiratory problems are especially vulnerable to the virus’s worst outcomes, including death. DeWine said he could not compel those people to vote amid a pandemic, potentially risking their lives, or otherwise lose their chance to have their voices heard.

“We should not force them to make this choice — the choice between their health and their constitutional rights and their duties as American citizens,” he said.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley disagreed with DeWine's move in a public statement.

“I respectfully disagree with Governor Dewine’s decision to move the election with less than twenty-four hours’ notice," he wrote. "I have supported the Governor’s other public health orders related to the coronavirus, and I believe the Governor made this decision because he believes it is right for public health.

"However, I worry that the precedent could haunt future elections by people who are not motivated by the same public good. I also believe that there is no reason to assume that June 2nd in-person voting won’t also be delayed. Accordingly, I am calling on the State to mail absentee ballots to all registered voters and encourage mail-in voting.”

ODH had diagnosed 50 cases of COVID-19 by 2 p.m. Monday. However, Acton emphasized that the total number of confirmed diagnoses at any given time reflects only a small portion of existing cases — many of which have not been tested or confirmed by one of the labs processing results.

The day before, she had compared the sickness to starlight: By the time it becomes visible to the human eye, it has already traveled thousands of miles.

"We are on the upswing of this curve," she said Monday. "The numbers will climb."

Reporting by Cleveland.com was included in this story.

Find more coronavirus/COVID-19 hotlines and resources below:

Ohio

  • Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 833-4-ASK-ODH
  • See ODH’s COVID-19 resources here.

Kentucky

  • State COVID-19 hotline: 1-800-722-5725
  • See the Cabinet for Health and Family Services coronavirus resource site here.

Indiana

  • SDH Epidemiology Resource Center: (317) 233-7125 or (317) 233-1325 after hours, or e-mail epiresource@isdh.in.gov
  • See more information for coronavirus in Indiana here.

What is coronavirus, COVID-19?

According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are "a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).

A novel coronavirus, such as COVID-19, is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.

COVID-19 was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China and has now been detected in 37 locations across the globe, including in the U.S., according to the CDC.

The CDC reports the initial patients in China have some link to a large seafood and live animal market, indicative of animal-to-person spread. A growing number of patients, however, did not report exposure to animal markets, indicating the disease is spreading person-to-person.

What are the symptoms? How does it spread?

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death, according to the CDC. Symptoms can include fever, cough, shortness of breath.

The CDC said symptoms could appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure. It is similar to the incubation period for MERS.

Spread of the virus is thought to be mainly from person-to-person. Spread is between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet). Spread occurs via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

According to the CDC, it could be possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, the CDC said.

The disease is most contagious when people are the sickest and showing the most symptoms, but it can be spread even at asymptomatic stages.