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Published: Tuesday, 8/28/2012

Firing of 2 urged in dispute over weekend voting

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- A pair of Democrats on the Montgomery County Board of Elections who pushed for weekend early voting in violation of a directive from Ohio's top elections official should be fired, a state hearing officer recommended Monday.

Secretary of State Jon Husted is expected to make a final decision today on the board members' fate.

He saw the votes of Thomas J. Ritchie, Sr., and Dennis Lieberman as defiance of his directive setting uniform hours across all 88 counties for in-person early voting for the Nov. 6 election. That directive provided for expanded weekday hours but made no mention of weekends.

Jon Allison, a hearing officer working under contract with the secretary of state's office, did not accept the arguments of Mr. Ritchie and Mr. Lieberman that their votes for weekend hours augmented the Republican secretary's directive rather than defied it.

Mr. Allison said the wording of Mr. Husted's directive and a follow-up clarification letter from his deputy assistant made the secretary's intent clear and gave them a chance to reverse direction.

"I conclude that no reasonable person … could conclude that [the directive] is ambiguous and permits weekend hours for in-person absentee voting," Mr. Allison wrote. "Therefore, I conclude that Mr. Lieberman, in making his motion, voting for it, and later refusing to rescind it did so in contravention of [the directive] and in violation of [state law].

"Mr. Ritchie, who seconded the motion and voted for it, also did so in violation of [state law]," he wrote.

He said that Mr. Husted not only has the authority to remove the pair but the facts support that move.

On Aug. 20, Mr. Husted suspended the two Democrats after they deadlocked 2-2 with Republican board members over the scheduling of weekend hours.

Last week, following a hearing before Mr. Allison, Mr. Husted temporarily reinstated them so they could continue to make some election-related decisions while the case was pending.

"It's not justice when you already know the outcome of being put on trial," said Mr. Lieberman, a former chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party. "A hearing examiner appointed by SOS Husted has agreed with his boss. This is not news.

"What's really not fair is what is happening to voters in Montgomery County and all across this state," he said. "They are being denied the chance to vote on weekends, and that's wrong."

The two men will make a decision about their next step after hearing of Mr. Husted's decision.

Voters may begin to cast absentee ballots by mail or in person beginning on Oct. 2.

With county boards of elections setting their own early-voting hours, Mr. Husted faced criticism for breaking 2-2 ties in a number of Democrat-performing urban counties, including Lucas, in favor of Republicans' positions of not adding any extra hours at sites for early voting.

At the same time, a number of boards in Republican-performing counties had reached bipartisan agreements that expanded early voting hours there, including on Saturdays.

Mr. Husted responded with his directive establishing one set of hours for everyone.

Democrats argued that the move was part of a broader Republican conspiracy to make it less convenient for their voters to get to the polls; Mr. Husted countered that early voting, particular absentee by mail, has never been easier.

"You can look at the one negative situation in Montgomery County, but in all of the other counties, they've adopted it, and Democrats have supported it by and large," Mr. Husted told The Blade on Friday. "This has gone smoothly. However, there has been in the Montgomery County case one incident where it didn't go smoothly.

"I've been clear that it's OK to disagree with the law," he said. "It's not OK to defy the law. I bent over backwards to allow them to remedy the situation, but they refused to do it.

"I have the responsibility to make sure things run smoothly all around the state. If I have to step in and be firm, I will enforce the laws of the state."

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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