Ann Sanner

COLUMBUS: The state’s elections chief fired two Democrats from an elections board on Tuesday after they pushed to extend early voting into the weekends in their southwest Ohio county, beyond the hours he had ordered.

Secretary of State Jon Husted initially suspended Thomas Ritchie Sr. and Dennis Lieberman from their positions on the Montgomery County Board of Elections and then temporarily lifted the suspension last week so the Dayton-area board could continue its work.

He told the members in a letter Tuesday that he was immediately dismissing them. He said they “knowingly and willfully violated Ohio election law” by not following his directive.

Ohio is one of 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow voters to cast early ballots in person without having to give a reason.

Husted, a Republican, has ordered election boards in Ohio’s 88 counties to have the same in-person, early voting hours on weekdays and to have no hours on weekends.

Both members appeared at the secretary of state’s office last week for a hearing on whether they should be removed. At issue was whether they failed to act consistently with Husted’s order by voting at a recent board meeting to extend hours into the weekend.

Husted told the members in a two-page letter that their removal wasn’t about their different views, but about their defying his directive.

“Board members are free to express their discontent with any directive or advisory issued, but they cannot disobey them,” he wrote.

The Montgomery County board members’ actions are among a series of disputes over early voting in the presidential battleground state. The issue has essentially broken down along party lines, with Democrats favoring longer hours and Republicans opposed.

The Democratic board members said Tuesday they were disappointed, but not surprised, by the decision. They said they plan to speak to their attorney before deciding what to do next.

“The losers here are the voters and our democracy,” Ritchie, a 17-year board member, said in a statement. “Voters want the polls open on weekends and evenings so give the people what they want.”

Husted’s decision on Tuesday echoed the recommendation of a state hearing officer, Jon Allison.

Allison, who was appointed by Husted, told the secretary of state in a report on Monday that the board members had acted in violation of his directive and the law and should be removed.

Lieberman and Ritchie contended that they abided by the directive. They said Husted’s order addressed regular business hours, not weekend hours. Their attorney, Don McTigue, said a “rush job” by the secretary of state’s office resulted in an ambiguous directive that was being used to discipline his clients.

Allison said in his report that “no reasonable person” could conclude that the directive is ambiguous or permits weekend voting.

Before Husted’s directive, local election boards, each made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, were setting their hours. Weekend and evening hours varied. Husted, in his role as chief elections official, broke any ties.

Montgomery County had been among the counties that had established early voting hours before Husted’s directive.