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Door To Door: How The Pandemic Changed Ohio Politics

Ohio secretary of state Frank LaRose speaks during a media tour of the Delaware County Board of Elections in Delaware, Ohio, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.
Paul Vernon
Associated Press
Ohio secretary of state Frank LaRose speaks during a media tour of the Delaware County Board of Elections in Delaware, Ohio, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.

One year ago, Ohio officials took an extraordinary step that showed just how dramatically COVID-19 would change our lives: They canceled in-person voting for the March 2020 primary and pushed to extend Election Day.

Soon the coronavirus and COVID-19 precautions would become defining election issues – not just for 2020’s candidates, but for those on the ballot in years to come.  

On March 16, 2020, the day before Ohio’s primary election, Gov. Mike DeWine declared that in-person voting was incompatible with new federal guidelines limiting indoor crowds.

“It is clear that tomorrow’s in-person voting does not conform, and cannot conform, with these CDC guidelines. We cannot conduct this election tomorrow,” DeWine said at the time.

A new election day was set for April. These steps, and similar ones around the country, sparked a major change in the ways that Americans vote. County boards of elections in Ohio received a flood of requests for mail-in absentee ballots.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose required one ballot drop box outside each board of elections, while Democrats and voting groups pushed for more in November. It’s a fight that may continue into future elections.

Meanwhile, as many Ohioans tuned in to DeWine’s regular coronavirus briefings, Health Department director Amy Acton became the face and the voice of Ohio’s pandemic response.

“I don’t want you to be afraid,” Acton told Ohioans in the early days of the pandemic last year. “I am not afraid. I am determined. But I need you to do everything. I want you to think about the fact that this is our one shot in this country.”

As opposition to health orders made itself heard, Acton became a target on the grounds of the Statehouse and even outside her Columbus-area home. She left the job last summer, but now, Acton’s name is being mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

Over the last year, resistance to DeWine’s health precautions has become a political rallying cry for many in the base of the governor’s own Republican Party. 

For example: Josh Mandel, the former Ohio treasurer seeking a political comeback in the 2022 Senate race, used a speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference to seize upon those anti-DeWine cries.

“And he had this lady named Amy Acton,” Mandel said in his speech. “She was sort of like the [Anthony] Fauci of Ohio, who the media trotted out as a hero, who DeWine trotted out as a hero.”

To the crowd at CPAC, it was clear that “the Fauci of Ohio” was meant as a pejorative. Mandel closed his remarks chanting “Freedom!” with the audience.

Last year, a few Republican lawmakers mounted fringe and failed efforts at impeaching DeWine. But this year, Republican legislators came together to oppose DeWine in a different way, passing a measure aimed at limiting the governor’s health orders. 

“They’re not bills,” said state Sen. Terry Johnson (R-McDermott) at a Statehouse hearing. “They’re not things that have passed into law. But we’re fining people? We’re impeding businesses and progress? The hit to our economy has been absolutely enormous.”

Last week, DeWine pledged a veto, saying the bill would tie the hands of state and local health officials facing future crises.

“I’m very concerned about a future governor and health departments around the state not having the tools they need to keep the people of the state safe,” the governor said.

This fight is playing out as the state has been lifting health restrictions amid declining COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Still, DeWine has said it may still be a couple months before all orders are gone.

As DeWine looks ahead to reelection next year, COVID-19 has put him in a strange political position. He’s at odds with many lawmakers and some candidates in his own party, while Democrats in the legislature have voted to defend his public health powers.

Perhaps all this could hurt DeWine in a GOP primary, but not in the general election.

After all, Gov. John Kasich was in a similar spot last decade when he bucked his party to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. That didn’t stop his march to a second term.

And if DeWine has lost some in the Republican base, he doesn’t seem to have lost Ohioans writ large. At least not as of last October, when Spectrum News and Ipsos polled his approval rating at 67%.

Plus, the 2022 primary is more than a year away – and importantly, a year after all Ohio adults become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

We’re marking a year of COVID-19 now. But by Primary Day 2022, we could be marking a year of COVID-19’s retreat.

What questions do you still have about COVID-19 and Ohio's response? Ask below and WOSU may answer as part of our series A Year Of COVID.