By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Two Democratic officials in Ohio, a key battleground state and huge electoral prize in the November 6 presidential election, were fired for trying to extend early voting to weekends in defiance of a state ban, officials said on Tuesday.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, issued a directive earlier this month that the hours for early in-person voting should be consistent throughout the state, where voting rules are a hot-button issue.
Voters will be able to cast absentee ballots from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays for the first three weeks of early voting beginning October 2 and until 7 p.m. on weekdays for the final two weeks before the election.
But two Democrats on the Montgomery County elections board, an area which includes Democratic-leaning Dayton, voted to allow weekend voting after Husted's directive was issued. Their votes were balanced by two Republican board members who opposed the change and the idea did not progress toward implementation.
After reviewing a report from an August 20 hearing on the case, Husted decided to fire the Democrats.
"You knowingly and willingly violated Ohio election law," said Husted in an e-mail Tuesday to election officials Dennis Lieberman and Thomas Ritchie. The message was provided to Reuters by the Secretary of State's office.
Democrats had argued that Husted's directive making absentee balloting consistent did not specifically prohibit additional weekend hours. They plan to appeal the decision.
Democrats said Husted has been trying to restrict voting in Democratic-leaning counties. Prior to his directive, some Democratic-leaning counties were not permitted extra hours while some Republican-leaning counties were. Extended voting is thought to favor Democrats in Ohio.
Husted said he was committed to making voting "uniform, easy, fair and secure."
Also in Ohio, lawyers for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign have asked a federal judge to restore early voting rights for the final days before the election to all registered voters in the state. A ruling is pending.
With the stakes so high in Obama's re-election bid against Republican Mitt Romney, there have been a number of disputes this year over voting, especially over new laws in several states requiring voters to present a valid photo ID.
Democrats say large number of minorities and elderly voters do not have the necessary ID. Republicans say the photo ID rule is needed to prevent voting fraud.
(Reporting By Kim Palmer; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Cynthia Osterman)