COLUMBUS -- A pair of Dayton-area Democrats appeared at a hearing Monday to fight an attempt to fire them from a local board of elections for insisting on weekend early voting.
Their stance was in defiance of Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted's order setting uniform hours across Ohio.
Thomas J. Ritchie, Sr., Montgomery County Board of Elections chairman, and Dennis Lieberman, board member, insisted their votes would have augmented, not violated, the directive. But their actions have been deemed "nonfeasance" in the eyes of Ohio's top elections official.
"[The directive] says these are the hours that boards of elections are to be open," said Richard Coglianese, principal assistant attorney general and Mr. Husted's attorney. "It applies everywhere in the state. … It applies so that voters in any county would be treated the same.
"But what we have now are two board members that have attempted to disregard clear direction from the secretary of state and to turn the justification by claiming there's some unknown ambiguity that no reasonable person reading the directive would find."
Don McTigue, attorney for the two board members, accused Mr. Husted's office of ordering the board to hold a meeting in violation of the state's Open Meetings Law to rescind the Democrats' motion to set weekend early voting hours.
"We have an order issued by [Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt] Damschroder to hold this meeting, which violates the Sunshine Law … " Mr. McTigue told hearing officer Jon Allison.
"To have board members in the context of a forced meeting that would violate the Sunshine Law, and requiring the board members to do essentially something that is unlawful, and penalizing them because they didn't do what you wanted them to do in this unlawful meeting is something that just doesn't seem to smell right."
Mr. Husted's directive set expanded weekday hours for the casting of absentee ballots in person, even expanding on the weekday schedule set by Montgomery County. But his directive makes no mention of weekend hours.
Mr. Allison said he hopes to make his recommendation as to whether the board members should be removed from office by the end of the week.
About 60 people rallied outside Mr. Husted's office building in support of the Democrats. One protestor's sign had a picture of Mr. Husted, declaring him to be "Secretary of Suppression."
Montgomery County's bipartisan board voted unanimously last December to schedule in-person early voting on two Saturdays and Sundays preceding the Nov. 6 election.
Mr. Lieberman said he interpreted Mr. Husted's directive as addressing only regular business hours, leaving the door open for the board to schedule irregular hours on weekends. The board deadlocked 2-2 on Friday morning with the Democrats backing weekend voting and Republicans siding with Mr. Husted.
Mr. Husted, who represented suburban Dayton in the Ohio House and Senate, did not simply break the 2-2 tie as he's done in similar situations with other urban counties, including Lucas. Instead, Mr. Damschroder sent a letter ordering the board to reconvene that afternoon to rescind the Democrats' motion.
The board did reconvene, but Mr. Lieberman refused to take back his motion. The board then adjourned with the support of the Republican members. Mr. Husted broke the tie in favor of the Republicans' position and immediately suspended the two Democrats.
"They not only broke Ohio elections law with this action, but they violated the principle of uniformity established to create fairness in the way we vote across Ohio," Mr. Husted said Monday. "While they are free to disagree with my decision, they are not free to disobey the law."
Mr. Lieberman said he was offended by Mr. Damschroder's letter on Friday threatening his removal.
"I viewed that as saying, 'If you don't take back your First Amendment right to free speech … and do exactly what we tell you do, and be the puppet that I want you to be, then I'm going to fire you,' " he said. "I wasn't put on the board of elections to be a puppet."
Democrats also pointed Monday to a comment to the Columbus Dispatch during the weekend by Doug Preisse, chairman of both the Franklin County Republican Party and board of elections, as evidence of GOP maneuvers to suppress the Democratic vote.
"I guess I really actually feel we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban -- read African-American -- voter-turnout machine," Mr. Preisse wrote. "Let's be fair and reasonable."
Deirdre Reese, an African-American outreach coordinator for the Ohio United Coalition and the AFL-CIO of Ohio, was among a small group that marched to a board of elections meeting Monday.
"It's very frustrating that in 2012, African-American voters would be singled out for participating in the elections process," she said. "Maybe he needs a history lesson to remember the people who died to have the right to go and stand in line to cast their ballot in person. … It smacks of racism. I don't know how else you can interpret that. He didn't single out any other group."
Mr. Preisse said Monday that he regretted if his comment offended.
"I was trying to make a candid observation about real politics in modern Ohio," he said. "The fact is the board of elections should guard against favoring either party or any party in our daily work. This was one example of one Democratic, very effective approach they take to voting.
"My remarks do not reflect an attitude about anything beyond the face of the words. Neither do I believe an early voting center should be placed in a Republican suburb."
Meanwhile, the state is awaiting a decision in a federal lawsuit filed by President Obama's re-election campaign challenging Ohio's law prohibiting in-person early voting during the final three days preceding the election for anyone but military members and their families.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.