Ohio Health Director Orders Polls Closed

After Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton ordered polls closed, state officials are looking to establish extended absentee voting and June 2 as the date for in-person voting.

Mar 16, 2020 at 3:44 pm
Ohio Health Director Orders Polls Closed
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Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton ordered the state's polls closed for the March 17 primary over concerns about pandemic virus COVID-19.

Those going to their polling places will be greeted with signs advising the locations are closed. DeWine has suggested that absentee voting be extended and that in-person voting take place June 2.

In her order, Acton cited a clause in the Ohio Revised Code that gives the health department the power to "make special or standing orders... for preventing the spread of contagious or infectious diseases." 

"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 an unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus," DeWine said in a statement. "As such, 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."

The move comes after a night in which the DeWine administration fought a back-and-forth battle to close the polls after making the suggestion less than 24 hours prior to the election.

DeWine couldn't postpone elections on his own. A group of Ohioans March 16 filed a lawsuit in Franklin County asking the courts to implement DeWine's suggestion. DeWine asked Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who represents the state, not to contest that suit.

But that evening, Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Frye ruled the election must go on because there was no sign that voting in person will be safer by the suggested voting date of June 2, because the legislature could not weigh in, because ballots could be lost and other reasons.

Former Ohio Department of Aging Director Judith Brachman was the plaintiff in the case.

Acton's order came at 10:15 p.m., effectively sealing th deal.

A challenge to DeWine's move was also filed in the Ohio Supreme Court, though the high court declined to take up the case. 

The proposal came as the Ohio Department of Health confirmed 50 cases of the virus in 12 counties around the state. Those cases were confirmed in people as young as 14 and as old as 86 and have led to 14 hospitalizations, Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton said.

No cases have yet been confirmed in Hamilton County, though health officials say that is very likely coming.

DeWine cited new directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that officials should ban gatherings of more than 50 people whenever possible. Previously, that directive was to ban gatherings of more than 100, which DeWine adopted here. 

DeWine also said that fears from many poll workers and voters — especially older ones — about possible contracting COVID-19 played into the decision.

The new directive made holding the primary safely impossible, DeWine says, especially for older people who are most at risk of a severe case of the virus.

"We should not force (older individuals) to make this choice between their health and their constitutional rights," he said. "We have an option that is disruptive, yes, but will protect peoples' constitutional rights." 

With DeWine's proposal, Ohioans would be able to vote absentee up until in-person voting on June 2. Later than that would be too late for both major parties to select delegates for the November presidential election, DeWine says.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said that using previous guidance, his office and other state officials believed it would be possible to hold the election. 

"Now the advice of our public health officials has evolved with this public health crisis, and it is not safe," Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said today. "We cannot tell people over the age of 65 that they should stay home and also tell Ohioans that they should go out and vote."

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley released a statement taking issue with DeWine's proposal.

"I respectfully disagree with Governor Dewine’s decision to move the election with less than twenty-four hours’ notice," Cranley's statement reads. "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.”

DeWine also issued an order closing gyms, fitness centers, recreation centers, bowling alleys, movie theaters and other venues. 

However, Lt. Gov. Husted said that other vital functions aren't in danger of closing.

"Grocery stores will remain open," he said. "You will have access to the essentials in life. That's why we are doing what we're doing - to limit the non-essentials so that we still have the essentials in life."

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