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Ohio bungled election delay

Not having a primary election Tuesday was the right decision.

But there are plenty of concerns about how it was handled.

State executive-branch officials — particularly Gov. Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health — have received a lot of credit for how they’ve addressed the COVID-19 outbreak and efforts to contain it. But that cannot be said for the election delay.

DeWine has said he decided early Monday to cancel Tuesday’s primary after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended no gatherings of more than 50 people to stop the spread of the virus.

He’s been so proactive on other issues related to the virus that DeWine should have made the decision much earlier. Around 2:20 p.m. Monday at his daily news conference was his first public mention that he was seeking a court order to call off Tuesday’s primary.

Making things more confusing was the secretary of state’s office didn’t tell county boards of elections the election wouldn’t happen before DeWine’s statement.

That is inexcusable. Local elections officials rightfully were upset and bothered.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose said numerous times before Monday that Ohio was prepared for the election despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a Friday email, his office wrote: “LaRose has taken aggressive action to ensure a safe, secure, accurate and healthy election.” LaRose continued to tout the safety of the election during the weekend and was set to move forward with the election as early as Monday morning.

Yes, the virus is spreading and a lot changes daily, but a decision to postpone the election should have come much earlier.

After DeWine’s announcement, it became a foregone conclusion the election would be delayed with June 2 thrown out as the new primary. But when turned over the court, Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Frye denied the request. Shortly after 7 p.m. Monday, Frye said it would be a “terrible precedent” for a judge to step in less than 12 hours before polling locations opened and rewrite the state’s election code.

There was talk of appealing the decision, but state officials were quiet until a few minutes after 9 p.m. when LaRose and DeWine issued a joint statement saying, “it simply isn’t possible to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans. They mustn’t be forced to choose between their health and exercising their constitutional rights.”

At 10:08 p.m. DeWine sent another email stating Acton “will order the polls closed as a health emergency.”

If this was a solution, then why wasn’t this done right away or right after the judge rejected the request?

About 11:30 p.m., LaRose ordered election boards to prepare for a June 2 primary.

Also, about 4 a.m. Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court in an unsigned decision rejected a request from a Wood County candidate who opposed the public health declaration.

This mass confusion and near-last-minute decision caused a lot of problems, resulted in some people still showing up to polling locations and a loss of some of the goodwill state officials had earned during this pandemic.

Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder wrote in a Tuesday memo to House members: “Over the last 18 hours, unprecedented chaos and confusion have reigned over Ohio’s election system.”

He added: “No Ohio voter should ever wonder when they will have the opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The date of Ohio’s primary election is set by state law and, as the secretary of state has acknowledged, the legal authority to change the date rests with the Ohio General Assembly — not the courts and not via executive fiat. So, too, does the process and manner in which the election is conducted.”

Sometime next week, the state Legislature is expected to meet to determine when the primary will be held.

Also, the Ohio Democratic Party filed with the Ohio Supreme Court seeking a “more workable window for the election to take place along with multiple opportunities and a reasonable amount of time for voters to vote.”

Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper told me: “June 2 is too late and unworkable. There is little chance there will be in-person (voting) that day anyway. We think it is far more likely that in-person will not be possible so better move to a mail ballot with drop-off opportunities. By not having it be in-person, we can move the deadline up to April 28 or some time like that.”

Kudos to DeWine, Acton and others for working to get ahead of COVID-19.

But the unilateral decision to cancel the primary election at such a late time was bungled.

Skolnick covers politics for The Vindicator and the Tribune

Chronicle.

dskolnick@tribtoday.com

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