Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose talks to reporters. (Photo by Susan Tebben, OCJ.)
With COVID-19 quickly emerging as a new and lethal public health risk, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose joined the governor in announcing a bold and controversial move.
They had organized plaintiffs, all in fragile states of health, to file a lawsuit in an effort to move Ohio’s March 2020 primary that was slated to begin the next morning.
“There is only one thing in my mind more important than a free and fair election, and that is the health and safety of our fellow Ohioans,” LaRose said, mere hours before Election Day.
“[But] the power to suspend an election, the power to delay an election, is not one that we have. It rests with the legislature and with the courts.”
Some two years later, LaRose has reversed on the issue. While he stops short of full-throated endorsements of former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, LaRose has instead claimed that liberal politicians and activists engaged in “crisis opportunism” during the pandemic.
Speaking on a podcast earlier this month, LaRose repeatedly criticized the “last minute changes” that secretaries of state and governors executed amid the new pandemic.
“In reality, what occurred in a lot of these states were activist lawsuits that resulted in last minute changes, or just administrative changes made by election officials, even in some cases, secretaries of state, that they should not have made,” he said. “We held the line on that kind of stuff here in Ohio. We didn’t allow activist groups to make election laws at the courthouse because we know election law should only be made at the Statehouse.”
Governors and secretaries of state in red and blue states alike — Michigan, North Dakota, Arkansas, Texas and others — changed election laws in response to the pandemic without going through legislatures, according to PolitiFact. Some 18 states including Ohio postponed their 2020 primary elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most the postponements came via the executive branch.
“Is that election fraud?” LaRose said, discussing the election administration changes from the executive branch. “Not in the traditional sense of the word but it is something that should not have happened.”
A primary delayed
Both Gov. Mike DeWine and LaRose made comments in early March 2020 that they believed Ohio’s March 17 primary could be carried out safely.
As case counts rose and CDC guidance evolved, the two convened a press conference March 16. Besides closing gyms, bowling alleys, movie theaters and waterparks, DeWine announced the lawsuit seeking to change the primary date, which is set by statute.
“We should not force them to make this choice — a choice between their health and their rights and duties as American citizens,” he said. “Further, we should not be in a situation where the votes of these individuals, who are conflicted, are suppressed.”
LaRose, who as secretary of state would technically be named as a defendant in the lawsuit, instructed his attorney not to contest the requested remedy of moving back in-person voting until June.
A few Republican lawmakers challenged the lawsuit, arguing that the primary election date is set by state lawmakers. Now-Sen. Niraj Antani argued that point in a hastily organized hearing in Franklin County Court of Common Pleas that evening. Rep. Jason Stephens, through an attorney, also challenged LaRose’s action which he said created confusion and chaos.
“LaRose’s unilateral action … also denied Stephens’ right to vote as a member of the General Assembly,” he said in a filing.
Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye rejected the lawsuit, opting against canceling an election the night before it was to commence.
Late that evening, then Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton issued a health order closing the polls regardless and thus delaying the election. Her order cited the lethal and quickly spiraling threat of COVID-19, which has since killed more than one million Americans.
Well past 1:30 a.m., the Ohio Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Acton’s order, effectively upholding her move.
The Ohio Democratic Party issued a release highlighting LaRose’s comments on the recent podcast, accusing him of taking a tenuous line of embracing Trump’s lie claiming fraud during the 2020 election while simultaneously promoting the integrity of Ohio’s elections.
“LaRose is saying things he knows aren’t true in an irresponsible effort to get more MAGA Republicans to like him so he can run for Senate in two years,” said ODP spokesman Matt Keyes.
A campaign spokesman for LaRose didn’t answer written questions about the discord and balked at the questions. He declined to identify any example of improper election law changes from 2020.
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