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Ohio's new 'election integrity' office and voter fraud at center of Secretary of State's race

The Ohio Secretary of State race features (from left) Democrat Chelsea Clark, Republican incumbent Frank LaRose and independent Terpsehore "Tore" Maras.
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The Ohio Secretary of State race features (from left) Democrat Chelsea Clark, Republican incumbent Frank LaRose and independent Terpsehore "Tore" Maras.

The Republicans who won all five of Ohio’s statewide executive offices four years ago are back on the ballot for re-election, facing a group of mostly unknown Democratic challengers.

Our series previewing the 2022 election from the Statehouse News Bureau begins with a profile of the race for Ohio Secretary of State which features Republican incumbent Frank LaRose, Democrat Chelsea Clark and Terpsehore "Tore" Maras

The secretary of state keeps track of business filings and campaign finance records, and it oversees the elections run by Ohio’s 88 county bipartisan boards of elections.

Republican incumbent and former state senator Frank LaRose said since there’s so much to the office, he’s created what he’s calling the public integrity division to consolidate investigative functions and bring in additional capacity – though he has said repeatedly that voter fraud, quite often a Republican talking point, is rare.

“That's like saying that carjackings are rare in your neighborhood, so maybe you should just abolish the police department," LaRose said. "Well, of course not. That's a foolish idea. And the way that you keep crime rare is by making sure that it's efficiently and thoroughly investigated, and that when people violate the law, they face consequences for it.”

Democrat Chelsea Clark is a councilmember in Forest Park near Cincinnati. She said since LaRose and the other Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission couldn’t pass maps that were constitutional, which led to the state spending an extra $20 million on an August primary just for the state House and Senate, and since LaRose acknowledges that voter fraud is rare, she’s skeptical.

“It’s extraordinarily concerning. He's been in office three years and 10 months, and all of a sudden we need now an Integrity Division right before the primary," Clark said. "I think the timing is absolutely awful on that. And when the Secretary of State's office leads from the front and operates in a constitutional manner, then there's certainly less need to have political plays like this.”

The secretary of state is on the redistricting commission with the governor, the auditor and two lawmakers from each party. Clark said she’s worried when the map drawing process starts up again after the election, what Republicans have already done will get worse.

“Even my opponent and the governor said, hey, we're concerned about the constitutionality of these and they're even asinine. Political partisanship is taking place of good governance. It's taking place of doing the will of Ohio voters. And it's going to take someone that's not going to cave to extremists in order to do that,” Clark said.

LaRose said he’s hoping both parties will try to find middle-ground solutions that he said he was working toward, though he did vote for all the Republican-drawn maps that were ruled unconstitutional, including the first map that could have put 80% of House and Senate districts in Republican hands.

“I also believe, though, that the Ohio Supreme Court got these decisions badly wrong.”

When asked if he called one of those asinine, LaRose said that logic behind maps advanced by his fellow Republicans was not good.

“What I said was that the rationale for the number of people that vote Republican versus vote Democrat, that had been advanced by one of my Republican colleagues, that that just wasn't good math as far as I'm concerned,” LaRose said.

Though he stayed out of campaigns in 2020, LaRose now promotes that he’s backed by former president Trump, and has campaigned with Republicans including congressional candidate J.R. Majewski, an election denier who’s made misleading statements about his military service.

LaRose, a decorated combat veteran, has said it’s up to Majewski to set the record straight, and Majewski has denied the claims that he’s lied. LaRose said he’s comfortable with the balance he’s struck.

“As Secretary of State, I conduct the work of this office in a in a completely nonpartisan way. But in my private capacity as a citizen, as a candidate, certainly on occasion, I can support candidates who share my values,” LaRose said.

Clark has been endorsed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group associated with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Its legal arm sued over the maps drawn by the Ohio Redistricting Commission that were ruled unconstitutionally gerrymandered. But Clark said the endorsement isn’t a problem or takes a partisan stance.

“I'm absolutely going to uphold the Constitution of Ohio. And that is part of that is not playing sides. Part of that is doing exactly what the will the people have voted for. That is what democracy is about,” Clark said.

Also on the ballot with no party affiliation is Terpsehore "Tore" Maras, a podcaster and Trump supporter who denies the results of the 2020 election and was ruled ineligible for the Republican primary for secretary of state in May.

In the past 20 years, no nonpartisan or third-party candidates for downticket offices in Ohio have received more than 5% of the vote.