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Secretary of State Frank LaRose to decide Sarah Thomas Kovoor’s eligibility

Trumbull elections board deadlocked on Howland attorney’s judge candidacy

WARREN — The eligibility of the judicial candidacy of Republican Sarah Thomas Kovoor remains in question after the Trumbull County Board of Elections deadlocked 2-2 with a vote along party lines.

By law, the tie breaking vote goes to Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican.

Kovoor was selected by the Trumbull GOP Central Committee on Sunday to be put on the November ballot to fill the remaining term of retired common pleas Judge Peter J. Kontos.

The elections board did vote to place Democrat Cynthia Westcott Rice, a sitting appellate judge, on the ballot in the same race. Kontos, who retired as of July 31, was elected in 2020 to a six-year term that expires at the end of 2026.

Elections board President Mark Alberini, a Democrat who voted against allowing Kovoor on the ballot, said he thinks the board got it wrong.

“The law is clear and an opinion from our prosecutor’s office clearly stated that Kovoor does not belong on the ballot,” said Alberini, the county Democratic Party chairman who voted along with Democrat Diana Marchese not to allow Kovoor on the ballot. Voting to put Kovoor on the ballot were Republican elections board members Ronald Knight and Arno Hill.

“There are extenuating circumstances going one way or the other. This is an issue that should go to Columbus,” Hill said.

Alberini said both sides of the elections board have to send their positions to LaRose before a decision is made.

“This could take a while,” Alberini said.

THE ISSUE

The issue deals with Kovoor of Howland being tapped on Sunday by the county GOP central committee by a 27-16 vote over attorney David Engler of Weathersfield, a former Mahoning County Democratic officeholder, to be the Republican name on the common pleas judgeship ballot.

The problem was that Kovoor of Howland had lost in the May GOP primary to incumbent John Eklund for a seat on the 11th District Court of Appeals.

In an opinion made to the elections board, assistant Prosecutors Bill Danso and Jason Toth cited Ohio Revised Code Section 3513.04: “No person who seeks party nomination for an office or position at a primary election by declaration of candidacy … shall be permitted to become a candidate by nominating petition … by declaration of intent to be a write-in candidate or by filling a vacancy under section 3531.31 of the Revised Code at the following general election for any office.”

The only exceptions are for boards of education, the governing board of an educational service center or township trustee, the law states.

Alberini said the board relies on the expertise of the prosecutor’s office.

“They (prosecutors) have offered a very clear opinion on this,” he said.

Gov. Mike DeWine, when he was attorney general in 2014, referred to this section of the law as a “second-chance / sore-loser candidates” provision in an Ohio Supreme Court filing.

Alberini noted the section was created in 1996 and twice upheld by the Supreme Court — in 1997 and 2014.

KOVOOR RESPONDS

Before the vote Friday, Kovoor told the elections board the statute “has nothing to do with me being a sore loser.” She said she wasn’t aware of the vacancy at the time of the May primary as the judgeship only became vacant in late July.

Meanwhile, GOP central committee member Randy Law, who was present for the Friday vote, challenged DeWine, who now has the power to fill Kontos’ vacancy with appointment, to name Kovoor immediately.

“What better time to do it while he is in our county today (in Cortland on Friday),” Law said.

Kovoor said the circumstances of her case are different than the one that challenged the law in 2014.

“I was not nominated by petition but by a vote of the party central committee,” she said.

After the 2-2 vote, Kovoor said she was not surprised the election board voted along party lines.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Sept. 16, 2014, in a 5-1 decision with one justice not participating, that Thomas Brown was ineligible to run for Ashtabula County Western Area Court judge in the November 2014 general election because he lost a Democratic primary on May 6 of that year for an Ashtabula County Common Pleas Court seat.

Board member Knight said he is concerned with serving the public’s interest by having competitive elections.

“If I am going to err, I’m going to err by putting candidates on the ballot, not striking them from it,” Knight said.

Marchese stated it was unfortunate that, facing deadlines, the board had to be rushed to a decision.

“It saddens me to not allow someone on the ballot,” she said.

The board later approved Rice of Brookfield for the ballot. Trumbull Democrats on Aug. 3 had nominated Rice, spouse of sitting common pleas Judge Ronald J. Rice, as no other Democrat candidates stepped forward. Rice has been an 11th District Court of Appeals judge since 2003 and defeated Kovoor in a 2020 election for the appellate seat.

The winner of the Nov. 8 Common Pleas election will serve the remainder of Kontos’ term, which expires Dec. 31, 2026.

OTHER ISSUES

In other action Friday, the board:

• Certified the results of the Aug. 2 primary election that only included state legislature candidates with no changes.

Independent candidate Jennifer Donnelly was approved to be a candidate for the 65th District House seat. She will be opposed by Republican incumbent state Rep. Mike Loychik of Bazetta. Donnelly had 544 valid signatures on her nominating petition when only the signatures of 346 registered voters were required. The board had disallowed a page of signatures from Donnelly’s petition because of duplicates;

• The nominating petitions of incumbent Judge Thomas Campbell were approved so he can go on the ballot in the nonpartisan election for Trumbull County Central District Court judge;

• Some 37 local questions and issues were certified for the Nov. 8 ballot, including seven charter amendments for Newton Falls voters.

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