Katie O’Neill listens during a hearing before the Athens County Board of Elections in January 2019 on a protest against her candidacy for the 94th Ohio House District. Photo by Conor Morris.

State Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, will not face a Democrat on the ballot in November after his Democratic opponent was disqualified from the ballot during an Athens County Board of Elections hearing Friday.

The Elections Board’s governing body (composed of two Democrats and two Republicans) voted 4-0 Friday to disqualify Katie O’Neill, Edwards’ Democratic opponent, from the ballot. This came after a Nelsonville resident filed a protest earlier this year over O’Neill’s candidacy, alleging that she wasn’t a resident of the Ohio House’s 94th District (which includes Athens County) for at least one year prior to the Nov. 3, 2020 election.

John Haseley, one of the Board of Elections’ two Democrats and chair of the Athens County Democratic Party, said Monday that the board found that O’Neill’s declaration of candidacy was ultimately “invalid” because she signed that document prior to becoming a registered voter in the district in which she hoped to run. O’Neill began having people sign her petitions to run for office in November 2019 despite not registering to vote at her Nelsonville address until early December 2019, The NEWS previously reported from the initial hearing on the matter last month.

During that initial hearing, the board actually voted 2-2 on whether to bar O’Neill from the ballot after (along party lines, with Haseley and Board Chair Kate McGuckin voting to deny the protest, and the board’s two Republicans voting to accept the protest). That would have left Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose to cast a tie-breaker vote once the board had presented the case to him.

However, Haseley said it “became clear” to the Elections Board after that initial hearing that members didn’t have all the information they needed to make an informed decision on the question of O’Neill’s candidacy (so they never presented the case to LaRose).

Therefore, the board scheduled a “rehearing” for Friday last week. Haseley said the board asked for written arguments from attorneys representing O’Neill and the protester, a Nelsonville resident named Allen Keith Monk. O’Neill is a 2013 OU graduate who finished her master’s degree in energy regulation and law at Vermont Law School and her juris doctorate in environmental law in 2019.

Haseley said he found “in his judgment” – noting he was not speaking for the other board members – that O’Neill issuing her declaration of candidacy (which is a document people sign to support the candidate’s run for office) prior to her registering to vote in Athens County “invalidated her whole declaration of candidacy.”

O’Neill in a press release issued Tuesday afternoon said that she interpreted the “plain reading of the law” in becoming the Democratic candidate on the ballot.

“It is unfortunate that the Athens County Board of Elections did not rule by a ‘fair and reasonable’ standard,” O’Neill wrote. “I hope there is an independent candidate on the ballot for Ohio House District 94 in this election.”

Board Chair Kate McGuckin did not respond to a voicemail left on Monday.

While the deadline has passed for a Democrat to file as a candidate in the 94th District, independent candidates can still file to run for that position up until Ohio’s March 16 deadline.

Edwards, who is in his second term and was appointed the majority whip for the Ohio House last February, provided a statement late Monday afternoon.

“Some may view this as me not having an opponent but I beg to differ,” Edwards said in the statement. “I have a much larger opponent everyday as I go to Columbus to be a voice for Appalachia. For far too long we’ve been left behind. Regardless of an opponent on the ballot, given the opportunity to fight for southeast Ohio, an area (where) I was born and raised, is a much larger challenge that motivates me everyday.”

Athens County Board of Elections Chair Debbie Quivey confirmed Tuesday that O’Neill’s name will still appear on the ballot, since the candidate filing deadline for the March 17 primary has already passed. But, the Athens County Board of Elections will provide a disclaimer wherever it can – in mailed ballots and in polling places – noting that votes for O’Neill will not be counted.

In her statement, O’Neill argued that “we are in a Constitutional crisis,” and that “we need people of courage to represent a working democracy in our Republic.”

“That is why I ran for Ohio House District 94,” O’Neill continued. “Rep. Edwards has not created a single bill as a primary sponsor on behalf of the district in the four years he has been in office.”

According to the Ohio Legislature’s website, Edwards was the primary sponsor of 12 bills during his time in office, but they were all honorary bills that in some shape or form commemorated people or organizations. However, Edwards did act as co-sponsor on many more bills, 74 according to that website.

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