Ohio Democratic Party sues over delay of primary election

A sign is taped to a door leading into a polling location at the Messiah Lutheran Church, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Lyndhurst, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

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 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. Messages were left seeking comment from LaRose, a Republican, and the state attorney general, who represents him.

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.

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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.

Both DeWine and Acton defended the decision Tuesday afternoon, saying it was needed to save lives. 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 initally 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 federal guidelines. The health director's order invoked a health emergency.

Statement from Ohio Democratic Party:

The Ohio Democratic Party today filed a writ of prohibition with the Ohio Supreme Court to ensure the primary election will take place and protect Ohioans’ right to vote, after polling places were barred from opening by the state Department of Health.

“This primary election must move forward,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper. “Earlier today we said that we would litigate to defend voters’ right to fully participate in the state’s Democratic primary election, and in the absence of action by the General Assembly and with other actors moving to shut down the primary, we have filed with the Ohio Supreme Court to ensure that all eligible Ohio voters are able to exercise their right to vote in this primary.

“Yesterday’s actions did not create unchecked authority with the governor or secretary of state to run a new election. So authority for a new election must come from the legislature or from a court. Today’s action seeks that court order, preserving the primary while also proposing a more workable window for the election to take place, along with multiple opportunities and a reasonable amount of time for voters to vote.

“We hope the court, governor, secretary of state, legislative leaders and other parties see the necessity of this order to preserve the right to vote and complete a fair and timely election in Ohio."

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose joint statement:

"Last night, the actions taken by Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton saved Ohio lives. By preventing Ohioans from going to polling locations, we averted a situation which would have gone against the most recent scientific evidence available and could have dangerously advanced the spread of coronavirus across Ohio. It is abundantly clear that it would have been impossible to carry out a fair, accessible, and safe election today. As we move forward, it is vitally important that Ohioans have a significant period of time to cast mail-in absentee ballots and an opportunity to vote in-person, as was provided in the directive issued last night by the Secretary of State."

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