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Ohio Supreme Court Reverses LaRose On Blocked Summit County BOE Member

Voters line up to cast ballots outside the Summit County Board of Elections last year. [Jon Nungesser / WKSU]
Voters line up to cast ballots outside the Summit County Board of Elections last year

The Ohio Supreme Court is ordering the state’s top elections official to put a Summit County GOP leader back on the local board of elections.

In a ruling handed down Tuesday, the court held that Secretary of State Frank LaRose “abused his discretion” in blocking county GOP chairman Bryan Williams from serving another term on the Summit County Board of Elections.

In March, LaRose intervened to stop Williams’ reappointment, alleging a host of problems at the Summit County board in recent years, including failures in clearing dead voters from the rolls and traffic snarls at the BOE during voting in 2020.  

The county party executive committee contested LaRose’s decision, arguing that Williams – a former BOE director – was well qualified to serve as a member of the board. In an affidavit, Williams alleged the secretary’s move was born out of political bad blood between the two Republicans. 

The court did not address Williams’ allegations of political retribution. But the justices did hold that LaRose failed to show Williams himself was responsible for any problems at the BOE. The court also ruled LaRose also did not substantiate allegations of a hostile work environment.

All seven justices endorsed the opinion, with one, Michael Donnelly, concurring separately.

“Though disappointed, we respect the Court’s decision,” Rob Nichols, LaRose’s press secretary, wrote in an email. “As Ohio’s chief elections officer, Secretary LaRose will continue to fight for integrity and accountability at Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections, as evidenced by recent changes made at other county boards of elections and upheld by the Court. The Summit County Board of Elections remains under Administrative Oversight until they deliver the level of competence the citizens of that county deserve.”

LaRose’s office alleged a “politically charged environment” at the board after receiving an anonymous letter claiming employees there endured a hostile culture.

The board’s director, Lance Reed, denied those allegations, according to the court’s opinion. And although the secretary’s office received two additional complaints after the legal case began, the court held that LaRose couldn’t use those retroactively to support his decision.

“LaRose’s concerns about a dysfunctional board culture remain the product of rumors and suspicions,” the court ruled.

LaRose had also faulted the board over traffic congestion at its Akron headquarters last year, as many early voters tried to drive ballots to the board’s drop box. But the court called those traffic problems “partly a problem of LaRose’s own creation,” citing his decision to limit boards’ abilities to set up multiple ballot drop-off sites.

The justices also pointed to the traffic configuration on Grant Street as generally problematic.

“LaRose fails to connect the traffic-flow problems during early voting to any action or inaction by Williams,” the court wrote. “LaRose made the decision to prohibit ballot drop boxes at any location other than the board of election office itself. Williams had no control over the high volume of early voting or the bottleneck traffic pattern on Grant Street.”

The secretary’s office had accused the board of failing to remove dead voters from the rolls. LaRose had also alleged that the BOE may have improperly canceled the registrations of voters convicted of felonies.

But the court ruled those issues were not a sufficient basis for blocking Williams’ reappointment. The court also wrote LaRose’s office itself may have contributed to confusion over how to determine which voters were serving time for felonies.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.