UPDATE: Tanya Conrath (D) has filed an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court challenging the decision by the Ohio Secretary of State that blocked her from challenging State Rep Jay Edwards (R-94) in the November election. Read the latest.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose ruled Tuesday that Tanya Conrath should not be listed on the November ballot as the Democratic challenger to State Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville). The case may now end up before the Ohio Supreme Court.
Last month, Democratic Party officials in the district nominated Conrath, a resident of Athens Township, to replace Rhyan Goodman, a 19-year-old Ohio University business administration student who dropped out of the race shortly after the August 2 primary. He had run unopposed.
When the Athens County Board of Elections met on August 17 to certify Conrath’s candidacy, its members — two Republicans and two Democrats — split the vote along party lines, with the Republicans against certification, despite a county assistant prosecutor’s recommendation in favor. Both Republicans — Gary Van Meter, a former Athens city councilmember and city auditor, and Aundrea Carpenter-Colvin, a longtime member of the board — skipped a subsequent board meeting on August 22, which Democrats had called to attempt a re-vote.
That sent Conrath’s nomination to LaRose, a Republican, for the tie-breaking decision. She can appeal LaRose’s decision to the state supreme court. She wrote in an email Tuesday that she is currently “weighing all [her] options.”
LaRose ruled that because Goodman withdrew from the race before being officially certified as the “party candidate,” the Democrats could not replace him on the ballot. He wrote in his decision letter that, due to significant delays in the primary and the legislature’s failure to reschedule certain filing deadlines, the board of elections needed to certify the primary results by August 15 — two days before the board did hold its certification meeting. He wrote that the board had been notified of this on August 9.
Democrats on the board had argued that the unofficial canvass of votes conducted on election night served as sufficient certification of Goodman’s candidacy, because he was the only one in the race. However, LaRose ruled that the canvass “by definition produces unofficial results” and that Goodman would have become the “party candidate” under the law only after being officially certified by the board.
LaRose’s decision letter contains “no analysis at all,” according to Mark Brown, an election law expert at Capital University’s law school. “The substitution statute, meanwhile, allows for substitution of a candidate who is nominated to be a party candidate. It does not require that the candidate be certified.”
“I am not surprised given LaRose’s plain partisan positions on every electoral matter to come before him,” Brown wrote in an email.
Brown and another election law expert who reviewed the parties’ arguments prior to LaRose’s decision at the request of the Independent had largely dismissed the Republicans’ arguments.
The Republican members’ argument was “pretty thin,” Brown previously wrote to the Independent. An Ohio Supreme Court case cited by both Republicans and Democrats to support their positions “strongly suggests that the BoE still has a duty to certify the candidate notwithstanding his withdrawal,” he wrote in an email. “That means he will then be the certified nominee, albeit a withdrawn certified nominee, but it would still satisfy any requirement of certification that the GOP insists is necessary.”
“Given the unique facts here (created by the belated August 2 election), a party effectively cannot in this instance substitute [any candidate], if the GOP is to be believed. That would re-write Ohio law, which offers parties a chance to substitute,” he continued. That re-writing would create “a Catch-22 that defeats Ohio’s substitution mechanism.”
“Election laws should be construed liberally to allow the people to vote,” he wrote. “The GOP’s interpretation contradicts that principle.”
State law reads that the Boards of Elections should certify replacement candidates if the proper procedures were followed by the relevant political party — not “that the board may consider this and approve it if it feels like it,” said David Carney of Case Western Reserve University’s law school in an interview. He called the Republicans’ arguments “not especially meritorious, but creative.”
Pete Couladis, a former Athens city councilmember and county auditor who is on the county Republican Party’s central committee, said he wasn’t aware of any pressure on the Republican members of the board of elections to vote against certifying Conrath.
“They looked at the question and the issue and secretary of state rules and the Ohio Revised Code, and [tried] to come up with an answer,” he said in an interview.
County board of elections deputy director Tony Brooks blamed state legislators, who declined to push the deadline for submitting filings — even though this year’s elections were significantly delayed by several Ohio Supreme Court rulings that new district maps violated a 2015 amendment to the state constitution, which requires legislative districts to reflect voting patterns. A federal court ruled that the unconstitutional maps should be used for this election. LaRose was one of the statutory members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission that repeatedly put forward the unconstitutional maps.
“This is something that’s never happened before in the state,” Brooks told The Post. “There is really nothing in protocol or anything for this situation.”
The actions of Republicans on the county board of elections reflect the “hyper-polarized” post-Trump politics in Ohio and nationwide, according to David Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
“Even though it seems to be a Republican-leaning district, their objective is to win,” he said. “The easiest way to win this is to prevent Democrats from being able to name a replacement on the ballot. It’s just disappointing that a political party would be so desperate to win that they would prevent voters from even being able to vote for another candidate.”
Conrath had noted that local Democratic parties have been able to replace nominees who dropped out of races against incumbent Republicans in at least two other districts, the 66th and 99th, this election cycle.
“The two Athens County Republicans are the only ones in Ohio trying to keep me off the ballot and robbing voters of their democratic right to choose their representative,” she wrote in an email last week.
After LaRose’s decision was released, Conrath wrote in an email that he is “a partisan hack” who “put politics above us” in an attempt “to reelect Jay Edwards single-handedly.”
She continued, “Edwards can’t run, he can’t hide, so he and LaRose have decided to do what they do best: cheat.”
A troubled start
Goodman’s withdrawal from the race came two months after his involvement in an Ohio University Student Senate controversy. Goodman and two other senators attempted to force removal of then-Treasurer Simar Kalkat, accusing Kalkat of various minor or unproven ethical violations, and pushing other senators “to accuse Kalkat of intimidation,” The New Political reported. Goodman resigned from the senate March 22, the day his impeachment trial was set to begin.
Although his Ohio House candidacy garnered some coverage, Goodman had no campaign webpage or social media to speak of and never created a fundraising committee. Still, county Democratic Party chair Sean Parsons said the party had no idea that Goodman intended to drop out of the race; Goodman even attended a party meeting in June as the sole Democratic candidate for the seat, months after he resigned from student senate.
Goodman has made no public comments explaining his decision to drop out, and did not respond to requests for comment from the Independent. However, Conrath told the Independent that she believes him to be “completely blameless in this.”
A better shot?
Conrath and Parsons are confident that, if she’s allowed on the ballot, Conrath will pose a significant challenge to Edwards, who was recently named chair of the county Republican party.
Edwards was first elected in 2016, filling the seat vacated by Democrat Debbie Phillips because of term limits. Edwards has easily bested the three previous Democrats he’s gone up against: Sarah Grace in 2016, Taylor Sappington in 2018 and Katie O’Neill in 2020.
Sappington came closest. A lifelong resident of Nelsonville like Edwards, Sappington was described as “the perfect red state Democrat” by the New York Times and ProPublica. But he didn’t garner support from traditional Democratic establishment groups such as local labor unions, who lined up behind Edwards. Sappington lost by a more than 15 percent margin.
If she gets on the ballot, Conrath may have better luck. Like Edwards, she is from a prominent local family with well-known businesses in the area. However, unlike Edwards — who ran for his current seat as a near-complete unknown just a few years after graduating from OU — Conrath seeks the office after a career supporting Athens County nonprofits and businesses.
Conrath was associate director of the Ohio University Innovation Center, directed workforce development programs at Tri-County Adult Career Center and was founding director of Leadership Athens County, a program of the Athens County Foundation. She also has served on the boards of the local affiliates of the League of Women Voters and Planned Parenthood, the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks and My Sister’s Place.
She casts herself in “stark contrast” to Edwards, whom she says is part of the “extremist” sector of the Republican Party that has gained a majority in the state legislature, she wrote in an email to the Independent. (Edwards has also been linked to the statehouse corruption scandal that led to the indictment of his ally, former Speaker Larry Householder.) Listing issues such as reproductive rights, supporting “real classroom conversations” over “banning books,” and gerrymandering, Conrath wrote that she would support the “rule of law over partisan politics and power.”
Edwards declined to comment on Conrath or her candidacy, but said in an interview that he intends to “keep fighting for our area and making sure that we’re giving Southeastern Ohio a big voice.” He listed several achievements when asked about his pitch to voters, including working on Gov. Mike DeWine’s $500 million Plan for Appalachia and the Rural Industrial Park Loan Program, and securing funding for the Baileys Trail System and Foundation for Appalachian Ohio.
Additional reporting by Dani Kington
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