The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled 6-1 Tuesday that an Athens County woman who entered this year’s race against Ohio 94th District Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, was improperly kept off the ballot by the Athens County Board of Elections.
Based on the Court’s decision, Katie O’Neill, also of Nelsonville, is now the presumptive Democratic nominee in the 94th District race, and any votes for her in the primary election will be counted. No one else is running for that seat in the Democratic primary.
O’Neill filed suit in early March against the Athens County BOE with the Ohio Supreme Court. She sought a court order directing the local elections board to declare that she’s an eligible candidate for the ballot after that board voted 4-0 in early February to disqualify her from the ballot. That was about a week prior to Ohio’s primary election, voting for which (by mail only) has been extended through April 28 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The Ohio Supreme Court wrote in its majority opinion that the Athens County BOE “abused its discretion” and in some cases “clearly disregarded applicable law” by rejecting her petition to run for office. The elections board had alleged that O’Neill wasn’t a resident of Athens County for one year prior to the Nov. 3, 2020 general election, and wasn’t a “qualified elector” in the 94th District. The high court in its majority opinion wrote that she met both of those requirements.
O’Neill in a statement Tuesday evening applauded the news and noted that this means any votes for her will be counted during the primary and general elections this year.
“Now is the time to know the essential workers in our economy,” she said in her statement. “Now is the time to recognize that clean water and healthy air, single-payer health care, local food, and renewable energy are the essential requirements for the 2020 future.”
John Haseley, one of the four members of the Athens County Board of Elections’ governing body (a Democrat), said in a statement Tuesday that the board will carry out the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We clearly came to a different conclusion, but appreciate the Court’s guidance and are diligently carrying out its decision,” Haseley said.
The Supreme Court in its majority decision explain that the Athens County BOE’s focus on when O’Neill became a resident of her apartment in Nelsonville was misguided; rather, Ohio law only requires that somebody “reside” in the district they run in, not that they reside at a particular or single location within that district.
“And there is uncontroverted evidence that O’Neill began residing in the 94th House District on Oct. 14, 2019,” the Court wrote. “On that date, O’Neill started living with a friend and working in Athens County while seeking a permanent home there, which she subsequently found and rented.”
Additionally, the BOE had argued that O’Neill was not a “qualified elector” because she was not a registered voter in Athens County at the time she began circulating her party petitions to run for office in November 2019. However, the only requirements to be a “qualified elector” are that someone be a U.S. citizen; is 18 or over; has been an Ohio resident for 30 days immediately preceding the election; is a resident of the county and precinct in which he or she offers to vote; and has been registered to vote for 30 days.
“O’Neill, who registered to vote in Ohio on Oct. 4 (2019), met all of these requirements,” the Supreme Court wrote in its majority opinion.
The lone dissenter, Supreme Court Justice Patrick F. Fischer, argued that there wasn’t clear evidence established during the case of when exactly O’Neill began residing in the district; as such, he said he couldn’t rule that the BOE acted “unreasonably, arbitrarily, or unconscionably” in denying her petition.
Katie O’Neill’s father is former Ohio Supreme Court Justice William (“Bill”) O’Neill, who resigned his position in January 2018.