Removal of Ohio Dem election officials recommended
COLUMBUS — A state hearing officer on Monday recommended that two Democrats be fired from an elections board after they pushed to set early voting hours on the weekends in their county, violating an order from Ohio’s elections chief.
Secretary of State Jon Husted initially suspended Thomas Ritchie Sr. and Dennis Lieberman from their positions on the Montgomery County Board of Elections and then temporarily lifted his suspension last week so the Dayton-area board could continue its work.
The two members appeared at the secretary of state’s office last week for a hearing on whether they should be removed. At issue is whether they failed to act consistently with Husted’s order on early voting times by voting to extend hours into the weekend.
Ohio is one of 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow voters to cast early ballots in person without having to give a reason.
Husted, a Republican, has directed election boards in Ohio’s 88 counties to have the same early in-person voting hours on weekdays and have no hours on weekends.
The board members’ actions are among a series of disputes over early voting in the presidential battleground state. The issue has essentially broken down along political party lines, with Democrats favoring longer hours and Republicans opposed.
Hearing officer Jon Allison, who was appointed by Husted, told Husted in a report issued Monday that the board members acted in violation of his directive and the law.
“I believe that the facts warrant removal and recommend that the Secretary take such action,” Allison wrote.
Husted’s office said a decision on the members’ removal will be made on Tuesday.
When a vacancy occurs on an election board, the political party of the member nominates a replacement and the secretary of state confirms or denies the appointment.
Lieberman and Ritchie contended at the hearing that they abided by the directive. They said Husted’s order addressed regular business hours, not weekend hours. Their attorney, Don McTigue, said a “rush job” by the secretary of state’s office resulted in an ambiguous directive that is now being used to discipline his clients.
Allison said in his report that “no reasonable person” could conclude that the directive is ambiguous and permits weekend voting.
The Democratic board members said on Monday that they will await Husted’s decision and then talk to their attorney before deciding what to do next.
“What’s really not fair is what is happening to voters in Montgomery County and all across this state,” Lieberman said in a statement. “They are being denied the chance to vote on weekends, and that’s wrong.”
Before Husted’s directive, local election boards, each made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, were setting their hours. Weekend and evening hours varied. Husted, in his role as chief elections official, broke any ties.
Montgomery County, in southwest Ohio, had been among the counties that had established early voting hours before Husted’s directive.
Lieberman made a motion at the board’s Aug. 17 meeting to uphold Husted’s order and set weekend voting hours in line with what the board had previously agreed to. He and Ritchie voted to add hours, and the two GOP members were opposed. That sent the matter to Husted, who sided with the hours in his directive.
Husted has accused the board members of refusing to implement the law in favor of establishing their own days and hours.
“While they are free to disagree with my decision, they are not free to disobey the law,” Husted wrote in a statement last week.