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.

The Athens County Board of Elections had a split vote along party lines after a contentious hearing Tuesday on a protest involving the Democratic candidate for Ohio’s 94th House District.

The matter now goes to the Ohio Secretary of State to cast a tie-breaker vote.

The protest, filed by Nelsonville resident Allen Keith Monk, attempts to keep Ohio House candidate Katie O’Neill, who recently moved to Nelsonville, off the ballot on two grounds:

1) that she allegedly was not a resident of the 94th District for at least a year prior to the upcoming Nov. 3, 2020 election;

2) that she was circulating petitions in November 2019 to run for office prior to becoming a registered voter in Athens County (on Dec. 3, 2019).

After hearing arguments from O’Neill’s lawyer and a lawyer for Monk, the protester, BOE Chair Kate McGuckin and board member John Haseley, both Democrats, voted to deny the protest (meaning O’Neill could stay on the ballot), while Republican board members Aundrea Carpenter-Colvin and Gary Van Meter voted for keeping O’Neill off the ballot. 

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. She seeks to run against incumbent state Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville. Edwards was elected to the majority whip position of the Ohio House in early 2019 after winning re-election to a second term in November 2018. Though Edwards attended the meeting Tuesday to watch the proceedings, he said he didn’t have anything to do with the protest.

The split vote Tuesday evening at the Athens County Board of Elections means that the protest case will be forwarded to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who will make the final decision on whether O’Neill will stay on the ballot. If she’s kept off the ballot, Edwards would run unopposed unless somebody filed to run as an independent.

During the lengthy meeting Tuesday, the protester’s attorney, Donald C. Brey of the Columbus law firm Isaac Wiles, presented a variety of evidence to attempt to hammer home the two points outlined above. Some of the evidence was obtained via subpoena for documents issued by the county Board of Elections.

Brey also called as a witness local private investigator Stan Molnar, who said he staked out O’Neill’s residence in Nelsonville for about a week in late December and didn’t see her at the apartment. O’Neill’s attorney, Patrick Quinn of Columbus law firm Brunner Quinn, noted that that was around the Christmas holidays, when it’s not unusual for somebody to not be at home.

Brey’s argument basically asserts that O’Neill did not live at that home in Nelsonville until after Nov. 3, 2019. He cited subpoenaed Columbia Gas documents showing that the apartment’s gas heating wasn’t turned on until Nov. 18 (O’Neill testified that that was when her landlord had her switch over her billing); the apartment being removed from two different rental listings online on Nov. 7 and Nov. 9; and that O’Neill had not changed her voter registration from her father’s home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to her residence in Nelsonville until Dec. 3, 2019.

Meanwhile, Quinn presented a copy of a signed and executed lease between O’Neill and her landlord that was signed on Oct. 31, 2019. The lease did have one discrepancy – that the security deposit was not paid until Nov. 4. Attorney Brey argued that this meant she didn’t live there until after that date; however, O’Neill said that she had begun residing in the home as of Oct. 31 after bringing her first wave of furniture and other belongings, beginning a long moving process that lasted through the month of November.

After hearing the evidence and arguments presented by both sides, the Board of Elections withdrew into a close-door executive session. Afterward, the board members cast their aforementioned votes on whether to approve or deny the protest.

Board member John Haseley, who chairs the Athens County Democratic Party, said that the lease dated Oct. 31 makes it “very difficult” to present a clear and convincing argument that O’Neill wasn’t living at the home prior to Nov. 3, 2019, which he said would be the cut-off date for living in the district one year prior to the November 2020 election.

Attorney Quinn, however, argued that the statute in question says residence must be established one year prior to a “candidate’s election,” rather than the date of the election in general (he argued that candidates aren’t elected until their election results are certified by the county board of elections and they are given their certificate of office).

Still, Haseley raised concerns about the fact that O’Neill had people sign her petitions to run for office in November despite her not being registered to vote in Athens County until early December. There’s not enough case law to provide clear guidance for the BOE on what to do in that matter, he said; those petitions do say that the person circulating the petition agrees, under penalty of law, that he or she’s a “qualified elector,” but the petitions aren’t clear on whether that means a “qualified elector” in the state of Ohio or a “qualified elector” in the district that the person is running in.

Board member Van Meter said he also is concerned about that aspect, along with the fact that the security deposit wasn’t deposited until Nov. 4, which is why he voted not to reject the protest. Carpenter-Colvin did not immediately offer a reason why she voted against rejecting the protest, nor did McGuckin on her vote for the opposite.

The Secretary of State has seven days to provide a response to the Board of Elections.

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