On Monday night, Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine announced that the state’s public health director would order that polls be closed on Tuesday to prevent the spread of Covid-19, in accordance with CDC guidelines.
As such, @DrAmyActon will order the polls closed as a health emergency. While the polls will be closed tomorrow, Secretary of State @FrankLaRose will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity.
— Governor Mike DeWine (@GovMikeDeWine) March 17, 2020
DeWine first suggested the state should not go forward with in-person voting on Tuesday on Monday afternoon, but his recommendation was struck down by a judge hours later, sowing confusion. According to local reports, the judge cited his own lack of authority on the matter: “There are too many factors to balance in this uncharted territory to say that we ought to take it away from the legislature and elected statewide officials, and throw it to a common pleas court judge in Columbus,” said the judge. He also noted that absentee ballots have been available for a month, and we’ve known about the novel coronavirus since January. (CDC restrictions on gatherings of more than 50 were put in place on Sunday.)
— NBC4 Columbus (@nbc4i) March 16, 2020
The move follows days of pressure for the four states scheduled to vote on Tuesday — Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio — to postpone their primaries. In an open letter, more than 1,600 people, including 100 medical professionals, called for the next round of presidential primaries to be postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic. All of the four states scheduled to vote on Tuesday have declared a state of emergency in response to the outbreak. The decision to hold both the Democratic and Republican primary elections — which have closed down schools, restaurants, and bars to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus — could exponentially grow the amount of cases and death toll. In Arizona, the state Republican Party decided months ago not to hold a presidential primary.
The letter, which is addressed to the Democratic National Committee and the secretaries of state for the four states, calls for those states to push their primaries to May. Until then, it reads, “mail-in voting should be implemented throughout under the guidance of health and election authorities.” Postponing the elections would also give states enough time to explore alternatives to in-person voting at a sufficient scale, the letter notes, particularly if the emergency continues to worsen.
“In addition to our primary concern about public health, we believe this would be beneficial to the democratic process,” the letter continues. “As people are understandably avoiding public places and crowds, we expect turnout to be depressed. Rescheduling the primaries would ensure that more people are allowed to exercise their right to vote without fear.”
The letter is in line with updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Sunday, which warned against gatherings of larger than 50 people — a number that public health officials said was itself way too high. But the call to postpone the elections cuts against a lobbying campaign by scores of progressive groups urging exactly the opposite.
Two states — Georgia and Louisiana — have already postponed their presidential primaries. On Friday, Louisiana became the first in the nation to do so, rescheduling their April 4 primary for June 20. Georgia followed up the next day, with election officials postponing the March 24 presidential primary to May 19.
In response to Louisiana postponing its primary, a broad swath of progressive and voting rights groups, organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Voting Rights Task Force, pushed back. “Sudden changes to election times, locations, and more have been proven to create barriers to, and in some instances the denial of, citizens’ right to vote,” the signers wrote. “We are concerned about the impact of the decision of the state of Louisiana to move the date of its primary elections. We applaud the approach taken by election officials in Ohio, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois to hold their primary elections on March 17, with proper public health safety measures in place.”
One of the signers of the statement was influential Democratic think tank Center for American Progress. Topher Spiro, CAP’s senior health policy expert, has been warning that decisions made by mayors and governors at this moment will have major ramifications.
Spiro urged the mayor of Washington, D.C., to shut down a group of restaurants threatening to resist the public order to close.
Yet CAP remains a signer of the letter criticizing Louisiana for postponing its election and applauding other states for not doing so.
Despite dire warnings over the virus and the nation’s hospital capacity, presidential candidate Joe Biden spread dangerous misinformation over the weekend, tweeting: “If you are feeling healthy, not showing symptoms, and not at risk of being exposed to COVID-19: please vote on Tuesday.” Several experts recently told CNN that “transmission by people who are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic is responsible for more transmission than previously thought.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, in an interview after the presidential debate on Sunday, said it doesn’t “make a lot of sense” to hold the primaries on Tuesday considering the pandemic. “I would hope that governors listen to the public health experts and what they are saying is … we don’t want gatherings of more than 50 people,” Sanders said.
Biden adviser Symone Sanders, speaking on CNN Sunday night, insisted that the CDC has deemed voting to be safe. “The CDC and folks have said it’s safe out there for Tuesday, so I don’t know what Senator Sanders was talking about,” she said. That is false, as the CDC has offered no such assurance. When Bernie Sanders spokesperson Briahna Joy Gray, a former Intercept editor, noted that Symone Sanders’s claim was false, CAP President Neera Tanden fired back at her.
A DNC spokesperson said that the party does not control whether the primaries go forward on Tuesday, and that the decision lies with the states themselves.
“Where we are working with state parties is on their delegate selection plans, which are things like filling their delegate slots by the June 20th deadline,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement. “As you’ve seen, some states have canceled county conventions, etc. Our rules this year make sure that presidential preference is locked at the first step (caucuses/primaries), so all state parties have to do is fill those delegate slots with people, and we are allowing flexibility for that.”
In the case of a global health crisis, the DNC’s silence amounts to support; pressure from the DNC — which decided not to have a live audience at Sunday’s debate and is monitoring the spread of Covid-19 ahead of the planned convention in July — could go a long way toward stopping the spread of the virus. And while there have been concerns that postponing the primaries could give President Donald Trump a pretext to postpone the November general elections, it could cut the other way too. If the party declines to postpone, and the elections trigger an outbreak, that failure could be its own pretext for Trump (who does not have unilateral authority to postpone elections).
Progress Now Arizona is also a signer of the letter encouraging voting to continue in the four states. When asked if they stand by the statement, Director Emily Kirkland said “the short answer is yes.”
She emphasized in an emailed statement that roughly 80 percent of Arizona voters are signed up for the Permanent Early Voting List, meaning that they already received their ballots in the mail and mailed their ballots back. She added that “Arizona has a lot of measures in place already to reduce lines and crowding,” citing the fact that voters in Maricopa County “can now vote at any of 151 polling places — so if there’s a line at one polling place, voters can go to another one nearby.” But on Friday, the Board of Supervisors announced that Maricopa County will be eliminating about 80 polling locations on Election Day because it doesn’t have the supplies needed to keep them clean.
On Friday, an Arizona judge blocked Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes from mailing ballots to eligible voters who weren’t on a permanent early-voting list. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich that day had also filed an emergency motion to block Fontes from sending out the ballots, arguing that he didn’t have the authority to send ballots to people who hadn’t requested them and suggested that doing so could lead to “a swarm of illegal ballots and immense voter confusion.”
On Friday, Maricopa County Election Day Director Scott Jarrett walked away during a press conference where he was explaining how and why the county had reduced the number of polling locations in order to adequately clean and sanitize them with limited available supplies. “We had 229 polling locations available prior to the plan, and then after the board’s vote, I went and performed an analysis to make sure that all those voters had 151 vote anywhere vote centers,” Jarrett said. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” he said mid-sentence and left the podium.
Another group that signed onto the statement, the Center for Popular Democracy, said they’re “evaluating our organizational stance” on the issue but don’t currently have an update to share.
While liberal groups like CAP fight to keep the elections on, progressive candidates waging grassroots campaigns point out that, even if primaries were to be held on Tuesday, they would now likely favor incumbents. Primary challengers rely on in-person canvassing to rally small donors. They say they’re facing challenges from the virus that their opponents, who are often more politically well-connected and backed by high-dollar donors, can use to their advantage.
Both Biden and Sanders canceled campaign rallies and events late last week. Sanders’s surrogate, former Ohio Democratic state Sen. Nina Turner, had to cancel an appearance at a community meeting scheduled Friday with Anthony Clark, who’s running in the crowded Democratic primary for the 7th District. Robert Emmons Jr., who is challenging longtime Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush in Chicago’s 1st District on Tuesday, was scheduled to speak as well.
Marie Newman, an ally of Emmons’s, has launched a rematch against incumbent Dan Lipinski, the son of an old-school Chicago machine politician, who was handed his seat by his father. Newman lost a close race in 2018 and has momentum heading into the primary. As of Monday, she told The Intercept that her canvassers are continuing to knock on doors, and she hasn’t stopped campaigning, but the campaign is taking precautions to mitigate the possibility of spreading or contracting coronavirus.
“We are trying to simultaneously keep everyone safe and voting,” Newman said, speculating that turnout would likely be down as a result of the pandemic. She announced Friday that she’d be voting early with her family on Saturday ahead of Tuesday’s election. Asked Monday if she thought the primary should be postponed, she seemed resigned. “We are where we are,” she said. “I leave it to our governor and mayor.”
The race in Ohio’s 3rd District, where Morgan Harper is taking on Columbus Rep. Joyce Beatty, may also be heavily affected by Covid-19. Harper’s campaign had been organizing heavily on college campuses in Columbus, but the virus has thrown in a wild card. Ohio State University, which is inside the district, initially sent its students home to combat the spread of the virus, and the campaign hunted down students to urge them to request absentee ballots. The state will now reportedly extend primary election voting until June 2.
As of Monday, Harper’s canvassers were continuing to hit doors, forgoing the handshake and keeping their distance. “There’s such a general awareness that people aren’t making physical contact,” said field director Lyla Shorenstein.
“Lots of hand sanitizer,” Harper added.
DeWine’s attempt to delay the Ohio primary follows other preemptive moves by the governor to stop the spread of the virus. On Sunday, DeWine anticipated that schools in the state may remain closed through the end of the school year. “Going by what medical experts are telling us, [the outbreak] may not peak until the latter part of April or May,” he said. “We’ve informed superintendents while we’ve closed schools for three weeks, odds are we will go on a lot longer.”
In a joint statement released Friday, the four secretaries of state said the elections will carry on as normal: “Unlike concerts, sporting events or other mass gatherings where large groups of people travel long distances to congregate in a confined space for an extended period of time, polling locations see people from a nearby community coming into and out of the building for a short duration.” To ensure a safe environment, the press release said, “Guidance from voting machine manufacturers on how best to sanitize machines, guidance from CDC on best practices for hand washing, and guidance from our respective state health officials is being provided to every polling location.”
Other states are beginning to follow the lead. Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler announced Thursday that the state party would end all in-person canvassing events and postpone in-person events. The party is switching from traditional canvassing to digital organizing for its April 7 election and encouraging voters to request absentee ballots online. It’s also conducting virtual trainings on its new digital strategy.
“The coronavirus pandemic, and Trump’s epic mishandling of it, simultaneously transforms the way we’re going to campaign this year and intensifies the urgency of winning,” Wikler told The Intercept. In Wisconsin, he said, the party is focused on “connecting with every voter we can possibly enlist to help end this nightmare.”
Update: March 16, 2020, 10:40 p.m.
This piece has been updated to reflect an Ohio judge’s decision to reject Gov. DeWine’s original recommendation to close polls, and the state’s public health director’s subsequent move to shutter them due to a health emergency.
Update: March 16, 2020, 4:40 p.m.
A spokesperson for CAP provided a statement following publication: “The coronavirus presents a serious challenge for election administration, as states must carefully balance concerns about public health against the impact on our democracy of delaying scheduled elections. For the general election and for primaries later this year, each state must do everything it can to provide all voters an opportunity to register and vote from home, including by expanding access to online voter registration, no-excuse absentee ballots, vote by mail, and early voting. States with primaries tomorrow, in which a significant number of people have already voted, have made significant adjustments to address public health concerns, but the decision they face continues to be particularly difficult. As states plan for upcoming elections, they must also consider further steps to try to keep the number of voters present at any one time at 50 or less, such as facilitating social distancing during the voting process.”