By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday refused to order the rehiring of two local election officials, both Democrats, fired by Ohio's Republican secretary of state after they tried to extend weekend hours for early, in-person voting ahead of the November 6 election.
Secretary of State Jon Husted fired the two men, Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie, in August after they proposed that voters in Montgomery County, which includes the Democratic-leaning city of Dayton, be allowed to vote on the weekends leading up to the election.
Ohio, where in-person early voting began on October 2, is a key battleground state in the presidential race and the firing of the two officials, and the underlying dispute over the state's voting rules, quickly took on a partisan hue.
In his ruling on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Walter Rice said Lieberman and Ritchie had failed to prove Husted's action was either unconstitutional or unjust.
Since 2005, Ohio's 88 local boards of election - four-person panels made up of two Democrats and two Republicans - have decided on a county-by-county basis when early, in-person voting can take place in their areas.
But Democrats complained that a pattern seemed to be emerging this year where Democrats on election boards in Republican-leaning counties were allowing in-person voting outside regular business hours, but Republicans in Democratic-leaning counties were blocking it.
Under pressure from Democrats, who claimed the patchwork approach was unfairly benefiting Republicans, Husted issued a directive mandating consistent early voting hours across the state and eliminating most after-work voting.
Lieberman and Ritchie contended Husted's order was "silent on the subject of weekend hours," however, and moved to allow in-person voting on weekends between October 2 and November 6.
When the pair failed to heed a warning to drop the plan, Husted fired them, saying they were breaking election law. They sued, insisting the firing was unjust and unconstitutional.
Nearly 30,000 people, many of them minorities, voted early in Montgomery County in 2008, according to election officials, 12,000 over the weekends.
Husted's office issued a statement on Thursday, calling the ruling "a victory for accountability in our elections system. Rules must be followed and I will continue to hold individuals accountable who fail to do so."
A spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
(Additional reporting and editing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Todd Eastham)