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Ohio’s primary election was postponed. Now what?

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Ohio’s primary was supposed to be held March 17, but after a series of confusing filings and last-minute legal challenges, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton ordered the postponement hours before polling locations were supposed to open — declaring the coronavirus a “health emergency” that endangered the lives of voters, poll workers and election officials

Ohio lawmakers ultimately extended primary voting through April 28. Most ballots will be cast through the mail. (Here's the form to request an absentee ballot.) 

“I think we’re going to be able to have accessible elections in Ohio, though — both the primary and the general,” said Edward Foley, director of the Election Law @ Moritz program at Ohio State and a nationally recognized scholar in how elections are conducted. He has authored several books on related topics, including Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States.

“I’m an in-person voter myself, but I think we have to acknowledge adjustments will need to be made at this time.”

Here, he discusses the implications of Ohio’s postponement and other times in history when forces beyond human control changed our election procedures.

Can people who had not registered to vote now cast a ballot in Ohio’s primary?

No, not as of right now. The order reads that the voter registration deadline of Feb. 18, 2020, remains the voter registration deadline. They’re not contemplating this as a new election. They’re viewing this as an extension of the election that was already underway.

Now, I expect more litigation to come. There may be more rulings in the future that changes this to allow the people who were planning to vote at the polls to register to vote by mail.

But as of today, they aren’t allowing more people to register.

If they do eventually reopen registration, couldn’t that just allow more people to vote who hadn’t intended to initially?

I think that’s a fair question. But the philosophy behind closing the polls is consistent with this idea of bending the curve and preventing hospitals from being overloaded.

Dr. Acton and the governor had taken steps in the days preceding the primary to prioritize Ohioans’ health over routine operations for schools, businesses and more. The health judgement was that having people be at the polls today would be inconsistent with all of that.

I think what they are trying to sort out is: How do we have a free and fair election where everyone can vote where voters’ choice controls? And how do we readjust the election properly given the new health reality?

A lot of folks are pointing to the other states that held their primaries that day — Arizona, Florida and Illinois — and asking if this was an overreaction.

The order to close bars and restaurants in Ohio came ahead of the state of Washington, and they were hit harder with cases than Ohio. I don’t think you can criticize Ohio for trying to be ahead of this to protect ICUs and save lives.

Could the primaries moving forward in other states affect the outcome of legal challenges to what happened in Ohio?

Not really. The Ohio situation is unique.

This isn’t the first time an election has been disrupted, right?

No, not at all.

Sept. 11, 2001, was a primary day in New York City, and that had to be postponed. Superstorm Sandy delayed elections, and Hurricane Katrina disrupted voting in New Orleans.

It’s very rare to adjust the timing of an election. You only do it in an emergency circumstance, and it’s often weather events that have this type of effect.

This situation is similar, but it’s not exactly the same. The events in the days leading up to Ohio’s primary had the feel of a weather event approaching.

We all hope this is over by the fall, but what happens with the general election if this continues?

You can’t delay a general election. Those dates are set by Congress.

In 1918, when the world was grappling with the Spanish Flu, they went forward with the general election because you must elect a new Congress every two years.

The challenge for the current Congress will be how to conduct this year’s election and we may have to depend on absentee ballots more this year.