COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The debate over when voters can cast an early ballot this fall in swing state Ohio continued to play out Monday during an administrative hearing for two suspended Democratic elections officials from southwest Ohio who had pushed for extra voting hours on the weekends.
An attorney for Secretary of State Jon Husted told an administrative hearing officer that the two election board members from Montgomery County had acted in violation of an order from Husted, who set the state's uniform hours.
"This is not a policy decision that is open for debate and amendment," attorney Rich Coglianese said during the hearing.
At issue is whether the board members, Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie Sr., failed to act consistently with Husted's directive and should be removed from the board. The two contend they did abide by the directive, and that Husted's order didn't address weekend hours.
Ohio is one of 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow voters to cast an early ballot by mail or in person without having to give a reason.
Monday's hearing was the latest in a series of flare ups over early voting in the presidential battleground state. The issue has essentially broken down along political party lines, with Democrats favoring longer hours and Republicans opposed.
Husted, a Republican, has ordered all 88 county election boards to have the same early voting hours on weekdays and none on weekends, once early voting starts Oct. 2. The order directs the boards mainly to be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays for the first three weeks of early voting, and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the final two weeks before Election Day.
Prior to Husted's directive, local election boards — each made up of two Republicans and two Democrats — were setting their own early, in-person voting hours. Weekend and evening hours varied among the counties. In his role as chief elections official, Husted breaks any ties.
Montgomery County, which is home to Dayton, had been among the counties that had established early voting hours before Husted's directive.
Lieberman had made a motion at the county election board's meeting on Friday to uphold Husted's order and extend voting hours into the Saturdays and Sundays that the board had previously agreed to before the directive. He and Ritchie voted in favor of the extra hours, and the two GOP members opposed the motion. That sent the matter to Husted to break the tie.
On Friday, Husted broke the tie, saying he backed the hours laid out by his directive. He also sent a letter to Lieberman and Ritchie, telling them they had failed to act consistently with his directive and were suspended.
The board members appeared at Husted's office Monday for a hearing on why they shouldn't be removed. Husted didn't attend the hearing.
Coglianese said the hearing wasn't about what the voting hours in the state should be, but about whether election board members are required to follow directives.
Lieberman and Ritchie said Husted's directive referenced regular business hours, but not weekend hours.
"I see nothing addressing the question of weekend hours," Lieberman told Coglianese, who had handed him a copy of the directive and its hours.
"I believe the motion was appropriate and I stick by that," he said.
Lieberman said a third of the county's 28,000 early voters in 2008 had cast their ballots on the weekends and 8,000 people alone had voted on the weekend before Election Day. He said early voting had allowed the county to cut precincts and polling places, resulting in $200,000 in savings annually.
"But that was based on early voting on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as during the week," he said. "Now we're faced with a situation where we have reduced precincts and we're going to have long lines like we did in 2004."
Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican, said the secretary of state has the legal right to set standardized early voting hours and local election boards are legally obligated to comply. The opinion said past directives have only been found to be invalid when they directly conflict with another state law.
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