As Ohio Postpones Its Primary, COVID-19 Pandemic Wreaks Election Havoc

After covering presidential elections, primaries and politics for the last 20 years, I’ve gotten used to days when the story changes before I can finish typing a sentence. The days after this year’s South Carolina primary are a perfect example. Super Tuesday preview done, think I’ll make a sandwich, wait, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg just dropped out and endorsed Joe Biden, oh well, NO SANDWICH FOR ME.

It’s the nature of the beast: The only constant is change. If you’re not ready to turn on a dime and rewrite a 1,000-word article under a screaming deadline because Candidate Floopdoodle woke up this morning and decided to flip your table, you’re in the wrong business.

Today, however, is different. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the remainder of the 2020 primary season is trembling on the edge of delay, if not outright dissolution, because nobody knows what is happening and nobody knows what comes next. Louisiana, Georgia, Ohio and Kentucky have all postponed their primaries, with more certain to follow as early as today.

A month ago, I marked March 17 on my calendar — St. Patrick’s Day, Evacuation Day — as Primary Day for Ohio, Arizona, Illinois and Florida. Less than two weeks ago, I was describing these four contests as likely being determinative in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Today, I’m wondering if they will all be bumped before I finish typing this sentence.

As of Monday evening, the Ohio primary is officially postponed. Two older voters had filed a private suit to delay the vote, but a judge turned them down. In response, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the polls to remain closed today, citing a “health emergency.” The Ohio Supreme Court got involved in the middle of the night. Voting was expected to begin at 6:30 am Tuesday morning. That is not happening.

“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.

The preelection chaos leading to Governor DeWine’s order in Ohio is not being repeated in the other primary states today, but again, that could change in a galloping hurry, just like everything else.

The Arizona primary, at present, is proceeding as planned. A New York Times report on Monday described Arizona voters as embracing the vote as a breath of normalcy in a deeply abnormal time. “I want to believe that voting takes away some of the fear,” Arizona Teamsters Political Director Dawn Schumann told The Times. “The fear is taking a lot out of all of us.”

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is making the same sort of “It’s a war!” statements that other politicians, most notably Biden during Sunday’s CNN debate, have been making over the last several days. The difference here is the fact that the others are using the metaphor to make people take COVID-19 seriously. The Florida governor, for his part, is rocking a “Once-more-unto-the-breach” vibe. “We’re definitely voting,” said Governor DeSantis during a briefing on Saturday. “They voted during the Civil War. We’re going to vote.”

The Illinois primary is also slated to go on today as planned, despite the fact that election officials there are expecting extremely low voter turnout. The disruptions are extending to the operation of the polls themselves, as many election-day volunteers are opting to stay away. The provided gloves and hand sanitizer, it seems, are not calming the waters for those workers.

The pressure to cancel today’s contests has been intense. “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,” reports The Intercept.

Not everyone agrees. After Louisiana postponed its primary, a cohort of progressive organizations published a letter underscoring their belief that the elections must be held:

The current Coronavirus pandemic presents tremendous challenges to local authorities as they plan for upcoming primary elections — challenges that we are confident they can meet. We all agree that the safety and health of the public is paramount, but steps can and must be taken to protect voters and poll workers while also ensuring that the democratic process marches ahead.

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. 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.

The November election is quickly approaching, and it is imperative that the federal government provide the necessary funding and guidance for states to prepare and ensure there are no barriers to the ballot due to COVID-19. All states should have contingency plans in place for additional voting options for the general election that will be held on November 3. Under no circumstances should the November general election be canceled or postponed, as that date is mandated by federal law. Our democracy and our elections have endured in other times of crisis, and we shall again.

It is a decision I would not want to have to make myself. The point of the letter is well taken, especially in regard to the November 3 general election. Yet the election in November, along with all of these smaller contests to come, requires a healthy voter population. The recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations would seem to vividly preclude the kind of public clustering that takes place on primary days. Gloves and hand sanitizer only go so far.

This is the part of the article where I would normally talk about the polls, the delegate count, who is up and who is down on the doorstep of these votes. COVID-19 has made that conversation moot. The polls can’t predict turnout, and turnout will determine who wins. This was set to be a big day for Biden — he was leading the polls in all four states — and may yet be. There is, quite simply, no metric available to speak intelligently about what to expect today.

That goes for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. We will take all this one day at a time, because that is all we can do. Stay healthy, friends.

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