The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
COLUMBUS, OHIO—A spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said the office didn’t want to get dragged in last week when a fellow Republican echoed former President Donald Trump’s baseless fraud claims and called for an audit of Ohio’s 2020 election.
But the state’s top election official won’t condemn Trump or say whether he’ll support the former president if he runs again in 2024. And despite his assertion that “it’s easy to vote and hard to cheat in Ohio,” LaRose wouldn’t comment on restrictions that forced large-county voters to wait hours to cast early ballots last year.
Former state Treasurer Josh Mandel is one of many Republicans eagerly trying to take up the Trump mantle in the race to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who is also a Republican.
Trump has lied relentlessly about his 7 million-vote loss in the 2020 election. His challenges have failed in more than 60 court proceedings and repeated reviews of the vote in states where the contest was close have upheld the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s win.
Now Republican officials are trying to initiate partisan reviews in other states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that Trump narrowly lost. And Trump is even demanding one in Texas, a state he won handily. In response, Gov. Greg Abbott is scrambling to accommodate the former president.
Critics fear that the real purpose of all the “audits” is to delegitimize elections in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans even though actual evidence of substantial voter fraud is vanishingly rare. False fraud claims can also be used to justify restrictions on voting that would benefit Republicans, they say.
Not to be outdone by other GOP politicians seeking Trump’s approval, Mandel upped the ante last week.
“Not only should we audit the vote in AZ, WI, MI, PA, GA — we must audit the vote in all 50 states,” he tweeted. “Even in states like OHIO where Trump won by massive margins, he probably actually won by even larger margins were it not for the Democrat cheating.”
Mandel didn’t respond when asked what evidence he had to support his claim.
LaRose’s office said it didn’t want to be dragged into the matter when Mandel was asked on Twitter if he was claiming that the secretary of state had a hand in running a crooked election. And, to be clear, there’s been no evidence of substantial fraud in Ohio’s 2020 general election, which Trump won by eight percentage points.
But LaRose won’t comment on the figure driving false election claims around the country. That would be Trump, who has a long history of crying “fraud” when things don’t go his way.
The former president accused Texas Sen. Ted Cruz of fraud when Cruz beat him in the Iowa Caucuses in February 2016. The same year, when Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the electoral college, he still said without evidence that the popular vote was rigged because Clinton won it by 3 million.
Then, in the run-up to the 2020 election, Trump repeatedly said the only way he would lose was if there was massive fraud.
Despite all the false claims attacking the integrity of American elections, LaRose’s office wouldn’t say this week whether the secretary of state voted for Trump in 2020. And, after all of Trump’s subsequent lies about how he really won in a landslide, LaRose’s spokesman wouldn’t say if the secretary of state planned to vote for Trump if he runs again in 2024.
“Anyone who suggests that Ohio’s 2020 election was anything less than the most successful and secure election on record is wrong,” the spokesman, Robert Nichols, said in an email. “Just like every election, the 2020 presidential election already has been audited and revealed an accuracy rate of 99.98%. We’re happy to help any Ohioan who may be unfamiliar with our safeguards understand the accessibility, accuracy, and security of how Ohio elections are administered.”
Amid the blizzard of false fraud claims, Republican-led legislatures have passed dozens of laws and introduced hundreds more that create new hurdles to voting, particularly for the poor and minorities. Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation they say will prohibit those hurdles — as well as changes to election administration they say would make it easier for a future disgruntled candidate to overturn an election.
In a fundraising letter, LaRose on Monday said the legislation “will make our elections less secure” but it didn’t explain how.
“It’s honestly not even about protecting the vote, as they claim and their allies in the liberal media echo over and over,” the letter said. “It’s about appeasing their progressive base to score political points and raise money for their campaigns.”
The letter added, “We’ve fought to ensure that it is easy to vote and hard to cheat in Ohio — because I understand the importance of free and fair elections.”
However, there are serious questions about how easy it was to vote in 2020.
Pursuant to a Republican-passed law in 2006, Ohioans can vote in-person early, but they’re restricted to only one voting location per county. In 2020, that meant hours-long lines in large counties such as Franklin and Cuyahoga, which — perhaps not coincidentally — tend to vote Democratic.
In addition, LaRose limited the number of ballot drop boxes available in 2020, when many were anxious to avoid polling places because of the pandemic.
LaRose claimed that he didn’t think he had the legal authority to allow more than one box per county. But earlier this year, after multiple judges said he did have the authority, LaRose maintained the limitation, saying it’s an issue for the legislature to decide.
The secretary of state has taken other steps that could be seen as thwarting the will of the voters.
In 2015, an amendment to the state Constitution to limit partisan gerrymandering passed with more than 70% of the vote. Among its provisions, it creates a bipartisan commission that is supposed to draw legislative districts that would result in a partisan makeup similar to the result of recent statewide elections.
Over the last 16 statewide elections, Republicans have, on average, won with 54% of the vote. But as a member of the commission, LaRose voted with a Republican majority for maps that, according to the GOP’s own estimates, would create majorities well in excess of 60%.
The League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups are suing.