Montgomery County at center of 'early voting' debate

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Montgomery County at center of 'early voting' debate

Montgomery County became the epicenter of the national debate over voting rights Monday, when two Democrats on the county Board of Elections said they were just doing their job when they voted to extend early in-person voting hours to weekends beyond the recently standardized state hours.

Husted is expected to decide whether or not to remove Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie, Sr., from the board by the end of the week.

“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,” Secretary of State Jon Husted said Monday in a statement. “While they are free to disagree with my decision, they are not free to disobey the law.”

Husted suspended Lieberman and Ritchie last week for failing to comply with uniform voting hours he set days earlier. Called to an administrative hearing at Husted’s office Monday morning, Lieberman and Ritchie insisted they followed Husted’s orders and voted to represent the best interests of the county’s voters.

More than 100 people rallied outside Husted’s office before the hearing, and Lieberman and Ritchie stuck by their votes.

“I feel that I’d done the right thing for the voters of Montgomery County,” Ritchie said. “I’ve come here this morning with an open mind, and a free heart and a good conscience knowing that I’d done the right thing and all I want to do is make sure we do what we did in 2008 and that’s give the people the right to vote.”

Of the 28,332 Montgomery County residents who voted absentee in-person in 2008, more than one-third voted during weekend hours. Lieberman said early voting allowed the county to merge precincts and save about $200,000 annually.

Before last week, bipartisan county boards decided early voting hours, which resulted in some counties offering weekend hours and others not. Husted, a Republican and the state’s chief election official, broke tie votes on the side of fewer hours — siding with Republicans in urban counties and causing Democrats and community activists to demand fairness.

Husted announced last week all 88 county boards of election would hold the same hours beginning Oct. 2 to allow uniform early in-person voting, which resulted in more voting hours in some counties and fewer hours in others. The directive did not list weekend hours.

The Montgomery County board agreed in December 2011 to allow early in-person voting on two Saturdays and two Sundays before the Nov. 6 election. During the board’s meeting Friday, Lieberman and Ritchie voted to continue weekend voting hours and Republican board members Greg Gantt and Kay Wick voted against the motion.

Husted’s office was informed of the 2-2 tie and Matthew Damschroder, state director of elections, demanded the board reconvene Friday afternoon and rescind the motion that resulted in the tie. The board met and 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.

Husted, a Republican, broke the tie, the hours he set were the only hours for in-person absentee voting. He also suspended Ritchie and Lieberman for failing to follow the directive and instructed them to plead their case against removal.

Attorney Jon Allison, former chief of staff for Gov. Bob Taft, presided over the hearing. Husted was not present. Allison said he would review all evidence and plans to make a recommendation to Husted by the end of the week.

Lieberman said they didn’t reject the directive but actually voted on accepting Husted’s order with the additional, previously-approved weekend hours. Lieberman said community members asked the board for the weekend hours.

“I wasn’t put on the board of elections to be a puppet,” Lieberman said in his testimony Monday. “I was put on to use my head, and determine if we are following the law or not.”

Assistant Attorney General Rich Coglianese, who represented the secretary of state in the hearing, said the directive is “very clear” in setting hours meant to be uniform and consistent across the state. Coglianese said Husted could not allow Democratic board members to expand hours any more than he could allow Republican board members to limit hours.

Coglianese said the hearing wasn’t about voting hours but whether election board members are required to follow directives and whether they can be removed for failing to follow directives.

Attorney Don McTigue, arguing for the Montgomery County officials, said Husted’s directive was “a rushed job” and takes away the board’s statutory authority to set in-person absentee voting hours. Husted directed all county boards to adopt “regular business hours,” which McTigue argued implies boards can set “non-regular” hours without violating the directive.

In a case a few years ago, former Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, did not reappoint a Hardin County election board member after he failed to follow a directive, but removing county board members in the middle of their terms is unprecedented.

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