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Coronavirus Worries Affect States' Primary Elections


So it's election day today. Election officials in Arizona, Florida and Illinois have confirmed that primary elections in those states will go ahead, despite the threat from the coronavirus. The situation, though, in Ohio is different. Just hours before polls were supposed to open there, the state's governor, Mike DeWine, called it off, pointing to the risks facing voters and poll workers.


MIKE DEWINE: We should not force them to make this choice, a choice between their health and their constitutional rights and their duties as American citizens.

MARTIN: The eleventh-hour decision led to a whole lot of confusion among poll workers and voters. We've got NPR's Pam Fessler with us to explain what happened. Pam, just walk us through DeWine's decision and sort of the chaos that ensued.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Yeah, it was pretty astonishing. A lot of voters in Ohio went to bed last night, and they didn't know whether or not there was going to be a primary today. It started yesterday afternoon when the governor announced that they would not go forward with voting today because they did not consider it safe for some voters, especially the elderly and that they would postpone the primary until June 2. But since he didn't have the authority to do this, the state backed a lawsuit by two older citizens that sought the delay. And that was supported by both Republican and Democratic parties. Poll workers were told not to show up.

But then much to everyone's surprise, a Franklin County judge denied the request last night. He said it was too late to make the change. So state officials had to scramble. And during the course of the evening, they issued a statement saying it still was not possible to hold the primary. But poll workers were told to show up. Then around 10:30 p.m., the governor announced that the state health director was declaring a health emergency and shutting down the polls.


FESSLER: Secretary of State Frank LaRose told county election officials to post notices on their websites saying that the in-person voting was suspended. And LaRose spoke last night to NPR. And here's how he explained the decision to call things off.


FRANK LAROSE: During my service overseas, I've witnessed people risking their lives to cast a ballot. I've walked in the footsteps of heroes on the streets of Selma, Ala., where people had to fight for the right to vote. Elections are something I don't take lightly. The only thing in the world that I think that takes precedent over conducting this free and fair election is the health and safety of Ohioans.

MARTIN: So, I mean, what now? How and when will residents of Ohio get to vote?

FESSLER: Well, it's not exactly clear. LaRose is going to be going to court to seek a decision to extend the voting and to go with the original plan, which was to allow in-person voting June 2 and then also to allow absentee voting to continue from now through then. But we're going to have to see what the courts decide. So it's really quite a mess.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, Pam, there are primaries that are going forward in three other states today - Illinois, Arizona and Florida. They just decided to keep the polls open, huh?

FESSLER: That's right. Now, they've been making a lot of accommodations to try and address concerns about the virus. One of their biggest problems is they've been losing hundreds, maybe even thousands of poll workers, especially older ones, who don't want to be in close contact with people all day long, which is, of course, what they're being told not to do by health authorities. So they've had to find backup poll workers. They've shut down some polling sites. They've been consolidating polling locations, especially those that are in senior living facilities.

So we'll have to see what happens today in terms of making sure that people get to the right polling site if they do show up. Officials have been, in fact, encouraging voters as much as possible to vote absentee. But their options are pretty limited right now. And so really, if they don't show up, you know, they can turn in their absentee ballots. But that's about it.

MARTIN: All right. And meanwhile, other primaries scheduled for later this spring and summer. We'll just have to wait and see. NPR's Pam Fessler.

Thank you, Pam. We appreciate it.

FESSLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.