March 30, 2012
COLUMBUS — The debate over when voters can cast an early ballot this fall in swing state Ohio continued to play out Monday during an administrative hearing for two suspended Democratic elections officials from southwest Ohio who had pushed to get extra voting hours on the weekends.
An attorney for Secretary of State Jon Husted told an administrative hearing officer that the two election board members from Montgomery County had acted in violation of an order from Husted, who set the state’s uniform hours.
“This is not a policy decision that is open for debate and amendment,” attorney Rich Coglianese said during the hearing.
At issue is whether the board members, Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie Sr., failed to act consistently with Husted’s directive and should be removed from the board. The two contend they did abide by the directive, and that Husted’s order didn’t address weekend hours.
Jon Allison, the hearing’s administrative officer, told the parties that he’s aiming to report recommendations by the end of the week as to whether any disciplinary action should be taken.
Ohio is one of 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow voters to cast an early ballot by mail or in person without having to give a reason.
Monday’s hearing was the latest in a series of flare ups 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.
Husted, a Republican, has ordered all 88 county election boards to have the same early voting hours on weekdays and none on weekends, once early voting starts Oct. 2. The order directs the boards mainly to be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays for the first three weeks of early voting, and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the final two weeks before Election Day.
Prior to Husted’s directive, local election boards — each made up of two Republicans and two Democrats — were setting their hours. Weekend and evening hours varied. And in his role as chief elections official, Husted breaks any ties.
Montgomery County, which is home to Dayton, had been among the counties that had established early voting hours before Husted’s directive.
At a county board meeting on Friday, Lieberman had made a motion to uphold Husted’s order and also 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 for the tie-breaking vote.
Husted on Friday sided with his directive’s hours. He also sent a letter to Lieberman and Ritchie, telling them they were suspended for failing to comply with his order.
Husted, who was not at the Monday hearing, 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.
Lieberman and Ritchie said Husted’s directive 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 was now being used to discipline his clients.
Coglianese argued the directive was clear. And with less than 80 days before a presidential election, he said, “it is necessary for the board to follow the instruction of the secretary of state.”
Lieberman said he believed his motion was appropriate.
“I wasn’t put on the board of elections to be a puppet,” Lieberman said. “I was put on the board of elections to use my head, and to question things, and determine whether we’re following the law or not.”
A third of the county’s 28,000 early voters in 2008 cast their ballots on the weekends, Lieberman said. That volume had allowed the county to combine polling places, resulting in $200,000 in savings annually, he said.
Without weekend voting, he said, “We’re faced with a situation where we have reduced precincts and we’re going to have long lines like we did in 2004.”