The two Democrats on the Montgomery County Board of Elections were suspended by Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted on Friday after they refused to back down in a standoff over extending in-person early voting hours for the upcoming election.
Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie Sr. must appear at a hearing at 9 a.m. Monday in Columbus to decide whether they will be removed from office.
“You leave me no choice but to begin the process necessary to remove you as members of the Montgomery County Board of Elections,” Husted’s letter to the pair said.
Ohioans start voting Oct. 2 and the debate over hours for in-person absentee voting (commonly called early voting) has been gaining steam for weeks in county boards of election across the state, all of which are made up of two Democrats and two Republicans.
Four of Ohio’s largest counties – encompassing Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo and Akron – deadlocked along party lines on whether to offer evening and weekend voting hours. Husted is the tiebreaking vote, and he denied extra hours, citing counties’ budget constraints and saying there “is sufficient time already available” for absentee voting.
But those four counties traditionally vote heavily Democratic, and there is a national backlash from Democrats who said Republican-dominated counties would have more opportunity to vote than Democratic-leaning counties.
In response, Husted on Wednesday announced a schedule that all 88 counties would have to follow that included some weekday evening voting hours, but no weekend hours.
Lieberman proposed Friday morning that Montgomery County continue to offer weekend voting hours, claiming that Husted’s recent directive on the topic did not specifically forbid that. After a heated - and profane - discussion, the board vote was a 2-2 tie along party lines, sending the issue to Husted.
Within hours, the Secretary of State’s office issued a sharply worded letter to the board, saying that any early voting outside the weekday hours listed in Wednesday’s directive would be a violation.
The state letter ordered Montgomery County’s elections board to meet again Friday afternoon and rescind Lieberman’s motion, adding that board members failing to follow a state directive could be fired – a claim that is supported by state law.
But in their afternoon meeting, Lieberman, an attorney and former county Democratic Party chair, refused to withdraw his motion, arguing both that his motion did not violate the directive, and that it was best for local voters. He acknowledged that the move could cost him his BOE job.
“I believe that this is so critical to our freedom in America, and to individual rights to vote, that I am doing what I think is right, and I cannot vote to rescind this motion,” Lieberman said. “In 10 years, I’ve never received a threat that if I don’t do what they want me to do, I could be fired. I find this reprehensible.”
After hearing of the suspension Friday night, Ritchie said that neither of the Republicans on the board made a motion to rescind Lieberman’s proposal either, and he wondered why they weren’t disciplined.
“I intend to fight this; I already have been in contact with legal counsel, and I’ll be prepared on Monday to answer (Husted’s) allegations,” Ritchie said, calling the elimination of weekend voting “a continued attempt to suppress Americans from exercising their right to vote.”
Husted announced late Friday that he had broken Friday’s morning’s 2-2 tie vote, and Montgomery County would not be allowed to have weekend voting hours or any other early voting hours outside those identified in his directive. He added that any board member who voted to do so in the future would face the same action as Lieberman and Ritchie.
Board member Greg Gantt, former chair of the county Republican Party, said during Friday afternoon’s meeting that he had never gone against a Secretary of State directive, regardless of which party the Secretary belonged to, and he wouldn’t start now. He responded angrily when Lieberman compared Gantt’s position to one taken at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
“That’s not called for. Rescind the motion or not and let’s get out of here,” Gantt said. “I’m not going to sit here and listen to comments like that. … I am so disappointed that we’ve had such a great rapport on this board for the past decade, but it’s all (gone).”
Lieberman fired back, saying Gantt had made fun of Democrats’ concerns about voters being disenfranchised.
“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you Greg, but when you refer to our arguments as ‘hypothetical crap,’ I think you should expect some push back, and you got it.”
Montgomery County’s BOE had previously approved its own hours for in-person absentee voting and had included four weekend days. Husted’s directive resulted in a net decrease of 10 early voting hours, but retained a total of 230 hours on 23 separate days.
Republican board member Kay Wick said Husted’s plan to mail an absentee ballot application to every registered voter solved concerns about in-office voting hours.
But Ritchie called it “a sad day,” saying weekend voting is important because residents should have more choice about how and when to vote. BOE officials said 10,829 Montgomery County residents voted on weekends during the 2008 presidential election, more than one-third of the 28,332 total in-office voters.
Dozens of residents and community leaders attended the Friday afternoon meeting. Clayton resident Elaine Herrick downplayed any hardship created by the lack of weekend voting hours, saying anyone who cares about the election has numerous ways to vote – by mail, on any of the 23 in-office days, or on Election Day itself.
Marty McMichael, pastor of Dixon United Methodist Church, said some people still will be denied the right to vote, and the issue will not be forgotten.
“Whatever happens here today, the community will be strengthened by it,” he said. “Because either the right thing will happen, or the wrong thing will happen, and then we will make our voices known.”