Executive Powers: A Crash Course

David Osterbrock and friends last weekend
Walnut Hills H.S. student David Osterbrock and friends outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections on March 14, campaigning in a hail shower before the Ohio primary that didn't happen.

Editor’s note: Right now we’re all getting an unplanned, real-time, high-stakes master class in American civics. Who’s really in charge here, and whose interests are they really serving? How are local, state, and federal entities and officials (executive, legislative, judicial) working together to serve the greater good—or not? What happens when our own individual rights, security and prosperity go against what’s best for our communities, our country, our world? We’re seeing all these conflicts play out in countless ways, day by day, thanks to the coronavirus. Democracy & Me asked David Osterbrock, one of our podcasters and a senior at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, to share some of his own experiences this past week as a campaign volunteer for one of our local primary candidates. For more on the Ohio election’s last-minute postponement and other dramatic events of our times, listen to this episode of Cincinnati Edition and Howard Wilkinson’s latest Political Chat, and stay tuned to WVXU for all the latest developments. – Julie Coppens

By David Osterbrock, senior, Walnut Hills High School

It was 3 o’clock on the afternoon of the Monday before an election, and I got a text from my friend who was working on a progressive campaign in Columbus saying that state officials had pushed off the election… until June 2. My initial response was, they couldn’t have done that! So many people have already early voted, and how would that even work if they postpone the election?! I’d stood outside all weekend participating in a get-out-the-vote rally at the Hamilton County Board of Elections. Would I have to do that again in June?

So like every good American, I logged on to Twitter to see if some of my favorite Ohio reporters were tweeting about the primary election being postponed. It seemed that when Governor Mike DeWine tweeted out, “it is my recommendation that we postponed in-person voting until June 2nd,” everyone took that as policy and not just a tweet from an executive figure who doesn’t have the individual power to move an election.

It wasn’t until 7 o’clock—again, this was the Monday evening before the Ohio primary election, with the Democratic Presidential nomination, many state and local races, and some important ballot measures all very much in play—that we found out a judge in Franklin County had ruled that the election could not be postponed. At the same time, throughout the night, some of my friends who were poll workers got conflicting text messages about whether to come in early the next morning and set up, or just to sleep in and expect the primary election to be postponed until June. Volunteers calling the help line or going to the website likewise got mixed-up information. 

For all the campaign staff who had been working on the assumption that the election was moved four months into the future, they now had to re-mobilize for an election that was now only hours away. Later that same night, the Ohio Department of Health had decided they were going to shut down the polls across the state to stop the election from happening. Just to recap: in the 11th hour, the Republican governor of the state of Ohio postponed an important primary election, only to have that action overruled in the state courts, and then the Ohio Department of Health moved to close the polls under a health-emergency provision, with no clear path forward to ensure fair, timely participation in the election by everyone who’s eligible. This all seemed to my friends and I, who had government class earlier that day, like a complete breakdown of checks and balances at the state level.

In the past few weeks, we have seen actions taken by governors of many states (and by mayors of cities, superintendents of school districts, etc.) to limit the spread of coronavirus. These moves have been made by executive leaders, mainly governors and health department heads, and not by legislatures or representative boards. It seems that it is governors’ time to shine, because in many states they can unilaterally close schools, restaurants and other businesses, and ultimately the polls. These moves prompt the question, what are the state legislators doing with regard to the coronavirus? Can they do anything? Or in times of crisis are the executive actions of a governor’s office the only tool to directly help and protect the citizens, without waiting weeks for a bill to pass through the legislature?

I’ll keep watching and asking questions—and I hope you do, too.