Dunking on DeWine for Last-Minute Primary Postponement is Really Weird!

An increasing number of Ohio Democrats are pouncing on Monday night's chaos as an opportunity to criticize Republican Gov. Mike DeWine for what they view as his dangerous mishandling of the statewide primary elections.

DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose defied the order of a Franklin County judge late Monday night and declared a public health emergency, via Dr. Amy Acton, to postpone Tuesday's in-person voting. As of now, absentee voting has been extended until June 2, and in-person voting will occur on that date.

Critics are arguing that this decision sets a dangerous precedent. (They are echoing the words of Judge Richard Frye, who Monday evening said postponing the elections 12 hours before polls were set to open would set a "terrible" precedent.) In a world tending toward authoritarianism, they say, DeWine's unilateral decision to shut down the election could be abused in the future. 

Others are adjusting their tinfoil hats and carelessly hinting at the same sort of electoral conspiracies that, in other circumstances, they'd be liable to mock.

Still others are treating the handling of Monday's announcement as a referendum on DeWine's leadership through the Coronavirus crisis thus far, as if the pandemonium Monday revealed Ohio's, and DeWine's, true natures.

My current view, (which, along with Coronavirus news, is subject to rapid evolution), is that these are all really shitty takes.

To get this out of the way, Mike DeWine is a puritanical arch-social conservative who gleefully signed the six-week abortion ban—the so-called "Heartbeat Bill"—a measure that even rabidly pro-life predecessor John Kasich was not prepared to take. In general, he's about as retrograde as politicians come, which is saying something in Ohio. The LGBT outlet Outlook Columbus once referred to him as the "hardest working homophobe in Ohio politics." He is a lifetime Republican, a career politician, whose most recent gubernatorial campaign was "fueled" by the oil and gas lobby. He has no interest whatsoever in funding renewable energy or public transit. In one recent case when he purchased land for conservation, he allowed an energy company to retain subsurface rights to make way for fracking. As Attorney General, he was an ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act and only changed his tune on Medicaid expansion when he ran for Governor in 2018. He's gentle in his demeanor — he is a grandfatherly, rule-following Roman Catholic and wants nothing but the best for the state's youngsters — but his politics have been garbage for the poor and working people of Ohio, especially women. 

All that said, his leadership on COVID-19 response has been exceptional. It's a mark of our society's inhumanity that a leader who makes basic efforts to keep people alive and who installs minimal safeguards in the event of financial catastrophe, and who informs the public regularly while doing so, is regarded as the nation's pacer, but here we are. 

It is not the case that DeWine's actions have been easy, meaningless gestures. It's weird to see people suddenly pretending that the Governor was just taking orders from public health director Dr. Amy Acton and shouldn't be commended for the aggressive response.

Several states have still provided zero guidance to their populations and enacted zero measures to prevent the spread of a wildly contagious virus that is expected to kill, at minimum, hundreds of thousands of people in this country.

DeWine, on the other hand, has been enacting incremental measures to mitigate the severity of COVID-19, and doing so under tremendous pressure, much of it emanating from his own party. Examples are too plentiful to bother citing, but take a stroll through the mentions of any social media post about the decision to shut down bars and restaurants in the state. People were livid.

And, to DeWine's credit, he and his team have considered the economic impacts alongside the public health risks. When they announced the closure of bars and restaurants, they also announced changes to the state's unemployment benefits to try to blunt the impact.

The impact will still be severe. There's no doubt. And these measures go nowhere near far enough. But it's important to remember, I think, that they're literally crafting all of these responses on the fly. DeWine and Acton and their advisers have made their priority — I think correctly — saving lives. This is one reason why national outlets are praising DeWine. The Washington Post said Ohio has "become a national guide" for responding to the emergency.

Which brings us to Monday.

To concede some ground to the critics, it absolutely would have been preferable had DeWine and LaRose made the election announcement a day or two earlier to prevent the bedlam last night. Monday night sucked! Nobody knew what was going on, or who had authority to do what. With the exception of a few dedicated statehouse reporters, everybody was quarantined and/or drunk and trying to figure shit out via Twitter and text. Poll workers were being robocalled with information conflicting with what they were reading on social media. It was a circus!   

But those who went to bed early and woke up late would have found the situation precisely the same as what DeWine and LaRose announced at their afternoon press conference (and reiterated in their statement late last night): The elections were postponed due to the Coronavirus. It would be irresponsible, indeed anti-democratic, to make voters choose between their physical health and their right to vote.

Their message was insistent. And for those who care, it happens to be in line with virtually every medical expert in the county, (to say nothing of the CDC), who have said that in-person elections would be a disaster right now. We are, after all, in the midst of a global pandemic, and Ohio has shut down just about everything but grocery stores and banks. Furthermore, other states have already postponed their primaries. Both Georgia (from 4/4 to 6/20) and Louisiana  (from 3/24 to 5/19) announced their decisions to do so this weekend.

I highly doubt that the people trashing DeWine online would have preferred to send thousands of senior citizens to their death. Nor would they, in the morning light of St. Patrick's Day, consider DeWine's messaging Monday any more "botched" than the situation on the ground in Illinois, for example, where judges and poll workers simply did not show up and voters have been turned away due to a lack of preparation and supplies.

In fact, the current Illinois debacle sure seems like slam-dunk corroboration of what DeWine and LaRose prophesied Monday night: "Logistically, under these extraordinary circumstances, it simply isn’t possible to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans," they wrote.

Anyone with two eyes and relatives over 65 can see that that's correct. There's no way an election today would be legitimate, and the legal challenges to it would likely far surpass the legal amendments necessary to postpone in-person voting.

The savvy response from those insistent on scoring political points is now likely to be, "DeWine should've made the announcement earlier. It's the timing that sets an awful precedent."

That, I believe, is the only argument available at this point. And while it may have merit, I think it's reasonable that DeWine and LaRose and Acton just did not realize how quickly this would escalate. It's not like they wanted to shut down restaurants and bars and indoor trampoline parks. Postponing the election was a last resort. But as pleas from the medical community became more dire, the advice from even three days ago — that polling locations would be safe — was no longer sufficient. Many of the 35,000 Ohio poll workers are senior citizens. More drastic measures were necessary.

Considering all this, I think Dems should be extremely careful about characterizing the decision Monday as a voter suppression effort. If anything, it strikes me as exactly the opposite. DeWine and LaRose went out of their way to communicate that they were not calling off the election. This was not a stunt to trick voters. The decisions of the past week have demonstrated that Ohio leaders are following the recommendations of medical experts. And the same seems true here.

Absentee voting will be extended by two-and-a-half months. And there's now ample time to consider further election modifications (expanded vote-by-mail options, as the Ohio Dems proposed this morning) if it looks like in-person voting on June 2 will not be possible.

The legal questions will no doubt be debated. And they ought to be! Protections should certainly be in place to prevent an executive inclined toward authoritarianism from unilaterally interpreting the current message — "the only thing more important than a free and fair election is the health and safety of Ohioans" — as license to abort voting entirely in the name of invented or partisan "health and safety" crises.

That is dangerous, especially in a democracy as limited as ours, where voting is largely the only way that citizens get to participate. But voting Tuesday would have posed immediate dangers as well, and DeWine and his team were forced to make a difficult decision, the result of which is that the primary elections have been delayed, not destroyed.

Despite the legitimate frustration and confusion, DeWine and LaRose and Dr. Acton should be thanked, not condemned, for once again prioritizing the lives of the most vulnerable Ohioans.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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