Amidst rapid changes surrounding in-person voting as concerns of novel coronavirus spread, Democratic groups are suing to expand voter access at the polls in some states.
The Ohio Democratic Party (ODP) sued Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose after Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the polls closed on Tuesday due to a health emergency caused by coronavirus.
LaRose set a new primary date for later in the summer, an action the ODP argued was not in his purview and which needed to be set by the state legislature.
The suit argues that by ordering county boards of election to hold in-person voting on June 2, without any action taken by the state legislature, those who had intended to vote in-person on Tuesday may lose their chance.
“This primary election must move forward,” ODP Chairman David Pepper said Tuesday in a statement. “Earlier today we said that we would litigate to defend voters’ right to fully participate in the state’s Democratic primary election, and in the absence of action by the General Assembly and with other actors moving to shut down the primary, we have filed with the Ohio Supreme Court to ensure that all eligible Ohio voters are able to exercise their right to vote in this primary.”
Instead, they argue, the sole power to set an election day lies with the Ohio General Assembly, and state statute requires that voting occur “the third Tuesday after the first Monday in March,” which in 2020, should be Tuesday, March 17.
“Despite a patent and unambiguous lack of jurisdiction and legal authority to set the date of an election, Respondent Secretary asserted jurisdiction and legal authority in Directive 2020-06 to set the date of Ohio’s 2020 presidential primary for June 2, 2020,” Daniel McTeague, the party’s counsel, writes.
Republican Ohio state House Speaker Larry Householder circulated a letter to his members on Tuesday, asking them to meet for a special session to set the state’s in-person primary day.
“I am contacting Republican House members and the Minority Leader is contacting Democratic House members to determine their ability to attend a session to “legally” adopt, change or extend Ohio’s 2020 primary election,” Householder wrote in the letter.
The Ohio legislature will meet next week to take up a number of issues related to the coronavirus.
DeWine and LaRose argued in a joint statement issued Tuesday night that by holding elections, it would have gone against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and risked the lives of Ohioans.
“By preventing Ohioans from going to polling locations, we averted a situation which would have gone against the most recent scientific evidence available and could have dangerously advanced the spread of coronavirus across Ohio,” they wrote. “It is abundantly clear that it would have been impossible to carry out a fair, accessible, and safe election today.”
In Wisconsin, the state Democratic party and Democratic National Committee filed suit against the Wisconsin Election Commission seeking to extend the voter registration deadline amid fears of coronavirus. Wednesday was the last day to register to vote in Wisconsin.
“Plaintiffs file this suit to ensure that Wisconsin voters, many of whom are their members and constituents, are able to fully exercise their right to vote in the midst of this unprecedented crisis,” the filing said.
The joint complaint also seeks to drop the photo-ID and proof of residency requirements for absentee ballot and voter registration requests “for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak,” as well as push back the deadline to submit absentee main-in ballots beyond Election Day.
The Wisconsin Election Commission declined to comment.
The lawsuit comes as at least six states and one territory — Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Connecticut and Puerto Rico — postpone their presidential contests, shuffling the entire primary calendar amid concerns over the coronavirus.
But the Wisconsin primary, which is slated for early spring, is currently moving forward as planned. Earlier this week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said that rescheduling the primary is not on the table “at this time” and that the governor’s office is “evaluating this as it goes forward. We’re hoping to hold it on the date if we possibly can.”
Moving Wisconsin’s contest is arguably more difficult than it would be for other states that have so far opted to delay their primaries, since Election Day in the state involves a full ballot — from the presidential primaries down to city government and council members.
The state, however, is already “retooling” to prepare for an election amid the outbreak, as one Milwaukee election official told ABC News on Wednesday.
While state election officials are “strongly encouraging” voters cast absentee ballots by mail, in-person voting is still set to be an option on April 7.
In Milwaukee, precautions are already underway, including equipping poll workers with gloves and masks, supplying polling sites with cleaning supplies and disinfecting wipes, and complying with CDC guidelines in terms of social distancing, by spacing out voters in line and limiting the number of people inside a polling site.
But Democrats are still concerned over the impact of coronavirus on voting.
“As Wisconsin citizens continue to distance themselves to ensure their safety, many will be unwilling and unable to risk their safety and the safety of others by waiting in line to register to vote and cast their vote on election day,” the filing states.
The plaintiffs added, “Many Wisconsin citizens also will be unwilling and unable to take on the safety risks of leaving their homes to obtain documents and to copy documents that are required under Wisconsin law to register to vote and to obtain an absentee ballot.”
The complaint was filed a day after DNC Chair Tom Perez urged states in a statement to move to a vote-by-mail option, instead of rescheduling a contest.
“The DNC is urging the remaining primary states to use a variety of other critical mechanisms that will make voting easier and safer for voters and election officials,” Perez said.