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February 13, 2012

ANN SANNER

Associated Press

COLUMBUS — Early voting hours are the same for the first time across the battleground state of Ohio, but the views are varied.

The hours have been met with pushback by several county officials, adopted by others and sparked a letter to the state’s elections chief from at least one election board member.

The new early voting times have come up at boards of election meetings across the state, mostly notably in southwest Ohio where two Democratic election officials face possible removal for voting to expand the hours beyond those outlined by Secretary of State Jon Husted.

Elsewhere, boards in counties including Lake and Butler have accepted the new times and posted them on their websites.

Ohio is one of 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow voters to cast an early ballot in person without having to give a reason.

Before Husted’s directive, 88 county election boards — composed of two Republicans and two Democrats apiece — were setting their own early voting hours. Weekend and evening hours differed.

In his role as elections chief, Husted broke a series of ties in favor of regular business hours. All were in Democratic-leaning counties, while some Republican-leaning counties that didn’t tie had voted to set extended hours.

The disparities caused partisan uproar across the state, prompting the Republican Husted last week to order all counties to have the same early voting hours on weekdays and none on weekends, once early voting begins on Oct. 2.

Democrats, whose power is concentrated in Ohio’s largest cities and counties, complained that Husted’s uniform hours would disenfranchise urban voters with long lines and curtailed access.

Amid the furor, Franklin County Republican Chairman Doug Preisse — an ally of Republican Gov. John Kasich — told The Columbus Dispatch: “We shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.” Preisse later said in a statement that his comments were misused, adding, “I believe that voting should be easy, convenient, and unintimidating for all voters.”

Husted’s directive means counties that had already opted to open for early voting during mornings, late evenings or on weekends now cannot do so. It also means expanded hours in counties where Husted’s tie-breaking votes would have closed offices at 5 p.m.

Democratic-leaning Montgomery County, which is home to Dayton, was among the places that had set weekend hours before the directive.

Democrats Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie Sr. had voted to follow Husted’s directive but to restore the weekend hours the board members had set. The move led Husted to suspend them for failing to act consistently with his order and start the process for removing them.

Ritchie, a 17-year member of the board, said voters should have the same opportunity for weekend voting as they did in 2008.

It’s the same frustration felt by one Democratic board member in nearby Greene County, which previously had voted to allow Saturday hours.

Board member Doris Adams of Xenia said she won’t disobey Husted’s directive, but she won’t sit quietly either. She’s asking Husted in a letter to reconsider permitting weekend voting hours.

“I can’t in all conscience just roll over and play dead,” Adams said. “I have a voice and my voice will be heard.”

County board members in northeast Ohio had mixed reactions to Husted’s order.

At a meeting Thursday, the Medina County board conveyed its disappointment over the lack of weekend hours to one of Husted’s liaisons.

Carol Gurney, the board’s deputy director, said the county had opted before his directive to have two Saturdays of early voting. Elections officials have accepted the schedule changes but had discussed whether to send a letter, she said.

Voters can’t cast a weekend ballot, but that didn’t stop county commissioners in the Democratic stronghold of Mahoning County from keeping open the building that houses the board of elections. Commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday setting weekend operating hours for the building to encourage the election board to allow early voting in October.

Board chairman Mark Munroe said the members are going to follow the secretary of state’s instructions. “He’s trying to ensure ample access for voters,” said Munroe, a Republican.

In Lucas County, home to Toledo, Democratic board members say they aren’t planning to skirt the order.

“I’m in favor of extended hours and certainly Saturdays, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to defy the directive,” Ron Rothenbuhler said.

In Cuyahoga County, Democratic board member Sandy McNair says he wants to see whether boards can reallocate the hours that Husted has set.

“There’s nothing more to ask him in terms of getting more hours,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely clear he’s spoken on that issue.”

McNair said he wouldn’t ask Husted about adjusting the hours unless he had consensus from the board.

Boards of election have heard from upset residents in Cincinnati and Columbus, who have shown up at meetings in Hamilton and Franklin counties to call for more hours.

The early voting hours take effect whether local boards act or not, said Matt McClellan, a spokesman for Husted’s office.

“Once a secretary of state issues a directive, it’s done,” he said.