COLUMBUS - Hundreds rallied here Monday at Ohio GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted's office to support two members of the Montgomery County Board of Elections suspended Friday for allegedly defying Husted's order last week limiting in-person early voting. Thomas Ritchie, Sr. and Dennis Lieberman, both Democrats, were summoned to a disciplinary hearing and could be fired because they voted to allow people to cast ballots at the Board the weekend before the 2012 election.
Husted came under national scrutiny and ridicule when he let Republican-leaning counties have extended early voting hours while restricting hours in Democratic-leaning counties. In response to the criticism, he ruled that early voting would be restricted to regular business hours in every county and no weekend voting would be allowed. This reduced the number of hours for early voting in Montgomery County, which includes the city of Dayton, where the Board had maintained extended hours for the past six years.
Chris Redfern, Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, stated that, because of job and school responsibilities, 93,000 cast early ballots in the state in the three days before the 2008 election. He said the suspensions were the first time in his memory that elections officials had been sanctionned for trying to expand voting.
Lieberman told the protesters that 7,800 voters cast ballots in person at the County Board on the weekend before the 2008 election. He remembered that the weather had been beautiful and the crowd on the lawn outside was in a festive mood. It included college students who needed to use the weekend hours so as not to miss classes. He said a former fellow Republican board member had surveyed the scene with tears in his eyes and remarked, "This is what America's about."
Montgomery County pastor Rev. Charles Holmes said that a debt of gratitude was owed to the two board members for "standing up for all voters, not just some." He said that Husted was "supposed to be a fair referee, but he's working in partisan ways to reduce the total vote count, just like his mentor, Ken Blackwell, did in 2004."
In 2004 then GOP Secretary of State Ken Blackwell limited the number of voting machines in urban areas causing voters to wait in line for hours and depriving an estimated 130,000 of their right to vote. It was this debacle that prompted legislation backed by both parties to establish early voting for 35 days prior to an election and allow county boards to extend hours.
Holmes charged that Husted's restriction is clearly aimed at African Americans as well as other voters. In 2008 many African American churches bused congregations to election boards the Sunday before Election Day so all could vote together. Franklin County Republican Chairman Doug Preisse, confirmed the GOP's racial intention when he told the Columbus Dispatch over the weekend: "We shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban - read African American - voter-turnout machine."
Union members, community groups and individual voters were represented at the rally. Paula Niven, a relative newcomer to Ohio, said she was embarrassed that a state government could be so against voting. She voiced doubt at Husted's claim that ending weekend voting was a matter of money.
In fact, Ritchie said Montgomery County had budgeted for the weekend voting hours and the county was fully ready to deploy the staff needed. He and Lieberman have a total of over 27 years of service on the Board of Elections. Action on their case could come later this week.
Photo: Anita Waters/PW