Recently fired Montgomery County Board of Elections members Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie Sr. sued Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted in federal court Monday, claiming their firing was unjust and asking for a temporary restraining order that would put them back in office immediately.
Lieberman and Ritchie, both Democrats, were fired last month after they pushed to continue weekend early voting in Montgomery County, just days after Husted, a Republican, had issued a directive setting weekday-only hours.
Also Monday, in order to meet a deadline in state law, county Democrats nominated former Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin and current Centerville school board member John Doll to replace Lieberman and Ritchie.
McLin said she supports Lieberman and Ritchie fully and would have taken the same stand they did in fighting for weekend voting hours. She said being on the Board of Elections means, “when necessary, following Dennis Leiberman and saying ‘I can’t change my conscience.’”
“Voting is something we fought hard for in this country,” Doll said Monday night after the vote. “It’s so precious, we need to do everything we can to protect it.”
Those recommendations will go to Husted, who must approve them unless he finds either or both to be “incompetent” for the office, according to the Ohio Revised Code.
McLin, who has previously stated her intent to run for a Dayton City Commission seat in 2013, said that decision is now in limbo. Doll’s school board term also ends in 2013. He said he would not seek re-election if he remains on the Board of Elections at that time. Coincidentally, both McLin and Doll ran for office against Husted before. Husted defeated Doll during a state Senate race in 2008. McLin defeated Husted in a state House race in 1992.
McLin and Doll both said if Ritchie and Lieberman’s lawsuit succeeds that they will step aside.
County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Owens said he hopes that Lieberman and Ritchie, who have been on the BOE for more than a decade, win their court challenge, but he said the party must be prepared in case they don’t. Owens said it is also possible that a federal judge could intervene and put the new nominees on hold, pending the court challenge.
In an affidavit filed Monday in the U.S. District Court in Dayton, Lieberman continued an argument that he’s been making since the Aug. 24 BOE meeting in question. He said that Husted’s directive on in-person early voting hours “listed specific Monday to Friday hours” but “was silent on the subject of weekend hours.”
Lieberman said he interpreted the directive as setting the weekday hours as the minimum, which he moved to accept, but not forbidding weekend hours, which he moved to add.
“We believe SOS Husted was wrong when he unjustly fired us. He violated our free speech and the free speech of other county elections board members,” Lieberman said.
But Husted has said since late August that he believes the directive was clear in prohibiting counties from adding hours. He has pointed to background language in the Aug. 15 directive about “leveling the playing field on voting days and hours … to ensure that the Presidential Election in Ohio will be uniform …”
The lawsuit claims that as a result of their firings, Lieberman has suffered “economic damages” in excess of $120,000 and Ritchie almost $29,000. Montgomery County BOE members earn $18,027 per year, plus eligibility for retirement and health insurance benefits.
The lawsuit also claims Husted violated their right to freedom of speech, and violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Lieberman and Ritchie claimed that their firing by Husted was “arbitrary, unsupported by any statutory basis, and based on political and personal motivations.”
“They were fired because they broke Ohio elections law,” Husted said Monday. “They’re free to say whatever they want, but not free to do whatever they want.”
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