Democracy 2020 Digest: Ohio to order polls closed over coronavirus 'emergency,' governor says

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Gov. Mike DeWine on Monday night announced his state's health director will order Ohio's polls to be closed Tuesday "as a health emergency" over the spread of the coronavirus, a dramatic move just hours before the state's scheduled primaries.

DeWine had recommended that the primaries be postponed, but a county judge had denied the request Monday evening.

"During this time when we face an unprecedented public health crisis, to conduct an election tomorrow would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at an unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus. As such, Health Director Dr. Amy Acton will order the polls closed as a health emergency. While the polls will be closed tomorrow, Secretary of State Frank LaRose will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity," DeWine said in a statement.

“The only thing more important than a free and fair election is the health and safety of Ohioans. The Ohio Department of Health and the CDC have advised against anyone gathering in groups larger than 50 people, which will occur if the election goes forward. Additionally, Ohioans over 65 and those with certain health conditions have been advised to limit their nonessential contact with others, affecting their ability to vote or serve as poll workers,” DeWine and LaRose said earlier, after the judge's ruling. “Logistically, under these extraordinary circumstances, it simply isn’t possible to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans. They mustn’t be forced to choose between their health and exercising their constitutional rights.”

MARCH 17 PRIMARIES: HERE ARE THE STATES VOTING AND THE DELEGATES AT STAKE

President Trump -- speaking at a coronavirus briefing at the White House Monday afternoon -- said he'd leave such decisions on postponing a primary up to the states but emphasized, "I think postponing is unnecessary."

Ohio is the only one of the four states scheduled to hold presidential primaries on Tuesday to move to postpone its contest. Officials in the other states - Arizona, Florida and Illinois - said their primaries would still take place.

The governor's office had filed the lawsuit in Franklin County with the hopes that it would quickly receive court approval.

The governor’s move came a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Sunday recommended against holding gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks.

STATES THAT HAVE POSTPONED PRIMARIES DUE TO CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK

The governor also said: "It is clear that tomorrow’s in-person voting does not conform with the CDC guidelines. We cannot conduct this election tomorrow, the in-person voting for 13 hours tomorrow – and conform to these guidelines.”

The governor also emphasized that “ultimately it is not fair to make people pick between their health and constitutional rights. Voters can vote by mail, and this will help us achieve the goal that people maintain their constitutional rights safely.”

DeWine also recommended that “between now and then absentee ballot voting be permitted.”

A LOOK AT FLORIDA’S PRIMARY WINNERS IN PAST PRESIDENTIAL CONTESTS

Soon after the move by DeWine to postpone primary day in Ohio, officials in Florida and Illinois announced that their primaries were still on for Tuesday.

“I wanted to let you know that Illinois is proceeding with plans for tomorrow’s primary as scheduled,” Illinois State Board of Elections public information officer Matt Dietrich wrote in an email to reporters.

Dietrich highlighted that as of Monday, 504,000 early votes had already been cast and that 294,000 mail ballots had been sent to voters. Both figures were significantly higher than in the 2016 primary.

“With early voting continuing today, we likely will see a substantial increase when early voting sites close. We along with the state’s 108 local election authorities had been encouraging early voting for several weeks and in the past two weeks had increased our efforts so voters could vote early and avoid lines and crowds on election day out of concern for coronavirus,” he emphasized.

In justifying the decision to go forward with the primary, Dietrich noted that “much of the voting for this election already has been done. Also, at this point there is no date in the foreseeable future when we can expect greater safety with any certainty.”

And pointing to Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker’s order to close restaurants and bars except for carryout service, he said “we want to point out that in-person voting is a comparable transaction to picking up a takeout restaurant order or shopping at a grocery store. There is no need for close contact when requesting a ballot from an election judge and Illinois does not require voters to show ID; a voter’s signature compared to the signature on record is proof of identity. Primary voting typically is a swift transaction that can be done at a safe distance from other voters.”

Florida’s Department of State told Fox News “we are moving forward” with their primary.

Earlier Monday, Secretary of State Laurel M Lee tweeted “we are aware of voters’ concerns over #COVID19. FL Dept of Health has assured healthy Floridians it’s safe to work the polls for & vote in Tuesday’s election. Supervisors of Elections are ensuring polls are prepared for voters.”

Arizona Gov. Steve Ducey announced a couple of hours later that their primary would also be held on Tuesday.

"We’ve made sure that election officials have the equipment and the support they need for the polling places to function tomorrow. Our elected leaders have been working overtime to ensure that voting is safe," the governor said.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs explained "this decision was not made lightly and what it all comes down to is that we have no guarantee that there will be a safer time to hold this election in the near future."

"There are thousands of workers across the state that must continue the job of counting the ballots in the days following the election. The longer we wait, the more difficult and dangerous this becomes," she emphasized.

Earlier in the day, she tweeted instructions and suggestions for voters to stay safe avoid contracting the coronavirus while casting their ballot.

Over a couple of days, Georgia, Louisana and Puerto Rico -- which have upcoming contests -- have delayed their primaries until later in the spring.

Biden's election eve lead

Joe Biden holds a commanding lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders in Arizona, according to two new polls released on the eve of that state’s presidential primary.

A Monmouth University survey released on Monday shows the former vice president with 51 percent support among likely Democratic presidential primary voters. Sanders – the populist lawmaker from Vermont who’s making his second straight White House run – stands at 31 percent.  That's 20 percentage points behind Biden.

And Biden leads Sanders by 17 points – 53-36 percent – in an NBC News/Marist poll that also released on Monday. Sixty-seven pledged delegates are up for grabs in Arizona.

Biden tops Sanders 58-35 percent in an NBC News/Marist poll in Ohio, where 136 pledged delegates are at stake if the contest is held.

The most recent polls in Florida and Illinois also indicated Biden enjoying large double-digit leads over Sanders.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal national survey released on Sunday showed Biden with a nearly two-to-one advantage over Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination.

In the last two and a half weeks, Sanders has watched Biden zoom past him in the race for the presidential nomination. Following a landslide win in South Carolina’s primary and sweeping victories in the coast-to-coast Super Tuesday states as well as last week’s mini Super Tuesday, the former vice president cemented his position as the unrivaled front-runner and has taken a commanding lead in the all-important race for convention delegates.

Fox News' Mike Tobin, Kathleen Reuschle, Sarah Tobianski, Stephanie Bennett, Alicia Acuna and Benjamin Brown contributed to this report