WORLD Ohio orders polls closed Tuesday over virus, roiling Democratic primary


Ohio orders polls closed Tuesday over virus, roiling Democratic primary


12:01, March 17, 2020


File photo: AFP

Ohio health officials ordered the state's polling stations closed for Tuesday's Democratic primary, as the governor defied a court ruling and declared a health emergency over coronavirus.

"While the polls will be closed tomorrow, Secretary of State @FrankLaRose will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity" at a later date, Governor Mike DeWine said late Monday on Twitter.

Ohio is one of four states -- joining Florida, Illinois and Arizona -- scheduled to hold primaries featuring Democratic presidential nomination frontrunner Joe Biden and his leftist rival Bernie Sanders.

Ohio's emergency action is the sharpest example yet of how the pandemic is upending the US political world, causing unprecedented turmoil in an election year.

DeWine, mindful of the rapidly escalating crisis with coronavirus that has already left about 70 people dead in the United States, called Monday for postponement of the primary and said a lawsuit was filed in an effort to ensure the delay.

When an Ohio court rejected the request, DeWine and his administration stepped in and ordered the polls closed.

Holding an election under current conditions "would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus," he said.

The decision came barely eight hours before polls were to open across the industrial Midwestern state.

All ballots already submitted by mail or by early voting will count whether or not the election day is switched, officials said.

Three other states voting Tuesday -- Arizona, Florida and Illinois -- are set to hold their primaries as scheduled. 

Louisiana recently pushed its April 4 vote to June 20, and Georgia postponed its March 24 primary by nearly two months.

After Ohio's call for delay, neighboring Kentucky postponed its vote by five weeks on coronavirus fears.

"These are unprecedented times," Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams said on Twitter.

Adams, a Republican, said he and Democratic Governor Andy Beshear "agreed to delay the primary election" until June 23.

- 'Unnecessary' -

President Donald Trump said Monday that Americans should avoid groups of more than 10 people, refining suggestions by health experts to avoid gatherings of 50 people or larger.

Trump said it was "up to the states" to decide whether to delay their primaries, but ultimately, he said, "I think postponing is unnecessary."

The election process "goes to the heart of what we're all about," Trump told reporters.

"I hope they do it very safely," the president added.

Tuesday's primaries were being closely watched as an opportunity for frontrunner Biden to consolidate his lead, while a poor showing by Sanders could cause him to quit the race.

The states voting Tuesday use a combination of in-person voting and absentee ballots sent by mail. 

Earlier Monday, Florida, the largest state to vote Tuesday with a large number of delegates at stake, remained on track to hold its primary.

"FL Dept of Health has assured healthy Floridians it's safe to work the polls for & vote in Tuesday's election," Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee tweeted.

But she stressed Sunday that voters who have been ordered to self-isolate or who are experiencing symptoms "should not go to the polls," but instead get someone to bring them a vote-by-mail ballot.

In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey said officials were taking "every precaution necessary to protect public health on election day" and were encouraging voters to wash their hands carefully before and after entering polling stations.

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