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Published: Saturday, 8/18/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

EARLY VOTING

Husted acts against 2 defiant Dems

Elections officials in Montgomery County suspended

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS -- Two Democratic members of the Montgomery County Board of Elections were immediately suspended Friday after they insisted on allowing weekend hours for in-person early voting in violation of Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted's directive setting uniform hours across the state.

Mr. Husted has begun the process of permanently removing Thomas J. Ritchie, Sr., the board's chairman, and Dennis Lieberman from their positions.

In the meantime, he broke the board's 2-2 tie in favor of restricting early voting hours to the weekday timetable he laid out Wednesday.

Husted spokesman Matt McClellan said the office knows of no other county that has defied the secretary of state's directive.

The board tied 2-2 on Friday morning on a motion from Mr. Lieberman, a former county Democratic Party chairman, to schedule office hours for in-person early voting on two Saturdays and two Sundays before the election.

The Democrats supported it, and the two Republicans opposed it.

RELATED ARTICLE: Local GOP, Dems propose sites for early votes

Mr. Ritchie said he expected Mr. Husted to simply exercise his tie-breaking authority to side with the Republican board members.

"He's broken tied votes in the county before," Mr. Ritchie said. "But instead he threatened to remove us."

In a letter sent to Mr. Ritchie on Friday, Mr. Husted ordered the board to reconvene to rescind the motion made by Mr. Lieberman.

"Failure to act consistent with and voting in contravention of a directive is at best nonfeasance and subjects a board member to possible removal," the letter concluded.

The board did reconvene, but Mr. Lieberman made it clear he had no intention of taking back his motion, and Republican members did not make a motion to rescind it, Mr. Ritchie said.

The board adjourned without taking the action demanded by Mr. Husted.

"You therefore leave me no choice but to begin the process necessary to remove you as members of the Montgomery County Board of Elections for nonfeasance … as demonstrated by your actions today," Mr. Husted wrote in letters to both Democrats on Friday night.

They've been ordered to appear at a hearing in his office at 9 a.m. Monday, and he stressed that the hearing will not be postponed.

Mr. Husted also released an opinion from Attorney General Mike DeWine's office backing his authority to issue a statewide directive on early voting hours and to expect the 88 county board of elections to comply.

"There is no provision in [state law] that specifically addresses the hours during which the boards of elections must be open for in-person absentee ballot voting," reads Mr. DeWine's letter. "Therefore, a directive of the Secretary of State establishing hours during which boards of elections must be open to accept in-person absentee ballots does not conflict with another provision of state law regarding hours for in-person absentee voting.

"Additionally, we are not aware of any federal statute or constitutional provision that would conflict with this directive."

Mr. Husted had been under fire by Democrats for breaking 2-2 ties in several urban counties, including Lucas, in favor of Republicans' position of not allowing early voting beyond normal business hours Monday through Friday.

The boards in a number of Republican-performing counties had agreed on expanded evening or weekend hours.

Montgomery, the county Mr. Husted had represented in the Ohio House and Senate, previously had been a rare example of an urban county that agreed to allow weekend hours rather than stalemating 2-2 as Lucas, Cuyahoga, Franklin, Summit, and Hamilton counties had.

As a result of the controversy, Mr. Husted issued his directive on Wednesday, in which he set hours for the casting of absentee ballots in person for all 88 counties.

Under Ohio law, voters may begin mailing in absentee ballots for the Nov. 6 election or casting them in person at designated sites beginning Oct. 2.

Under Mr. Husted's directive, boards of elections must be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday during the first three weeks of this period, Oct. 2 through Oct. 19, and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday during the last two weeks, Oct. 22 through Nov. 2.

The exceptions would be Oct. 8, when offices will be closed for Columbus Day; Oct. 9, when boards already must remain open until 9 p.m. for the voter registration deadline; and Nov. 2, when offices must remain open until 6 p.m., the time under Ohio law when in-person early voting closes for this election for all but military personnel and their families.

"At the beginning of the week, Democrats were clamoring for uniformity. They got it," said Bob Bennett, Ohio Republican Party chairman. "Now they've changed their tune, and we're tired of the political games. The Democrats are being exposed for what they're really for -- confusion, chaos, and separate standards. That is exactly what Jon Husted is trying to avoid."

Democrats, however, have accused Republicans of conspiring to limit voting opportunities in counties where President Obama would be expected to do well.

" … [I]'m both shocked and deeply disappointed that Jon Husted would sink to this level," said Chris Redfern, Ohio Democratic Party chairman. "All Ohioans should be greatly concerned that our secretary of state is willing to force two public servants out of their jobs in order to push through his political agenda of voter suppression."

Mr. Ritchie said he and Mr. Lieberman initially interpreted Mr. Husted's directive to be the setting of minimum hours. Even after Mr. Husted sent his letter, clarifying so "there is no misunderstanding," that his directive contained the "only days and hours" where early voting can take place, the two Democrats stood firm.

"In 2008, 27,000 people visited our board of elections for early voting [during the entire 35-day period]," Mr. Ritchie said. "In excess of 11,000 of that was just on Saturdays and Sundays."

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



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