Raw Election Politics in Ohio

     DAYTON, Ohio (CN) – The day after a federal judge found a restrictive Ohio voting law unconstitutional, the secretary of state fired the only Democrats on a county Elections Board – for having opposed the law, the former officials claim in court.
     The state law eliminated early voting on the three days before the general election. A federal judge enjoined the law as unconstitutional on Aug. 31.
     The plaintiffs in the new federal case say they were fired on Sept. 1. Their attorney said on Tuesday that the men have not been reinstated, despite the federal ruling.
     In the previous case, U.S. District Judge Peter Economus that “thousands of voters who would have voted during those three days will not be able to exercise their right to cast a vote in person.”
     Economus wrote that the plaintiffs, which included the Ohio Democratic Party, had submitted “statistical studies to support their assertion that low-income and minority voters are disproportionately affected by the elimination of these voting days. Therefore, the injury to the plaintiffs is significant and weighs heavily in their favor.”
     In the new case, in Dayton Federal Court, Dennis Lieberman and Thomas Ritchie Sr. sued Secretary of State Jon Husted, alleging wrongful termination and due process and free-speech violations.
     Lieberman and Ritchie were the only Democrats on the 4-member Montgomery County Board of Elections until they were fired.
     The complaint states: “When the Ohio Legislature sought to eliminate the last three days of early in-person voting in 2011, the [Montgomery County] Board [of Elections] unanimously agreed to continue early in-person weekend voting except for the last weekend before an election.”
     They claim the board saved the county about $200,000 a year this way, “by combining polling places over the extended voting period.”
     But on Friday, Aug. 24, Lieberman and Ritchie attended a meeting with the board’s two Republican members and the board’s legal counsel, at which time they were presented with Directive 2012-35.
     “The directive listed specific Monday to Friday hours between October 2, 2012 and November 2, 2012 and required all County Boards of Election to adopt those hours ‘as their regular business hours.’
     “The directive was silent on the subject of weekend hours,” the complaint states.
     In response to that directive, from Secretary of State Husted, Lieberman “presented a motion that the Board adopt 2012-35 and also maintain in place the early weekend voting in October that had already been adopted by the Board and budgeted,” the complaint states.
     “The Board’s legal adviser at the meeting opined that the directive was, at best, ambiguous on the subject of early weekend voting and that Mr. Lieberman’s motion was appropriate.
     “The Board’s vote on the motion split on party lines, the two Republicans voting against the motion and Messrs. Lieberman and Ritchie voting in its favor.”
     Lieberman and Ritchie say that under state law, in the case of a tie vote such as this, both sides are to state their position within 14 days, and submit the briefs to the secretary of state, who will decide.
     But Lieberman and Ritchie say: “Shortly after the meeting, Messrs. Lieberman and Ritchie received a letter from a representative of the Secretary of State’s Office who interpreted the directive as excluding weekend voting entirely. The letter indicated that the Board would have to meet again the same afternoon and that, if the motion was not rescinded, Messrs. Lieberman and Ritchie would be subject to firing.
     “After Messrs. Lieberman and Ritchie expressed concern that such a meeting would violate the Sunshine Act, the Republican Director at the Board – without discussion, advice, authority or knowledge of the Board – sent a letter to the press noting that the meeting was an emergency meeting and that no twenty-four hour notice was therefore required to comply with the Sunshine Act.
     “At that meeting, Mr. Lieberman declined to rescind the motion he had made at the morning meeting and expressed his opinion that the letter from the representative was simply an interpretation of the directive which – unlike the directive itself which he and Mr. Ritchie had not declined to implement – did not have the force of law.”
     But 8 days later, Husted broke the tie in favor of the Republicans and “ordered Messrs. Lieberman and Ritchie to appear before a hearing officer to show cause why they should not be fired.”
     After the hearing, “the hearing officer, who has a history of active involvement in Republican politics, found that Mr. Lieberman had violated directive 2012-35 by the motion he made the previous Friday morning and that Mr. Ritchie had violated the directive by voting in favor of Mr. Lieberman’s motion,” the complaint states.
     “On Saturday, September 1, 2012, Mr. Lieberman was served with a notice signed by Mr. Husted terminating his position on the Board.
     “During the same time period, Mr. Ritchie was served with a similar notice.”
     Lieberman and Ritchie’s attorney Dennis Lieberman told Courthouse News in an email Tuesday that his clients have not been reinstated despite Judge Economus’ Aug. 31 ruling.
     Lieberman and Ritchie say the Election Board will be unable to function in their absence, as it will lack a quorum. They also point out that they “have a combined experience of almost thirty years in managing the complexities of the election process in Montgomery County.”
     “Any replacements for the plaintiffs placed on the Board will find themselves at the start of a significant learning curve on the eve of a major election,” the complaint states.
     Lieberman and Ritchie seek an injunction restoring them to their positions on the Montgomery County Elections Board, and compensatory damages.
     They are represented by David Greer, with Bieser, Greer and Landis.

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