Ohio state Sen. Gavarone introduces bills to investigate voter fraud and clean up election data

Both are priority measure for Secretary of State Frank LaRose

By: - March 9, 2023 4:45 am

State Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, during the Ohio Senate session, February 22, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

A pair of priority voting measures for Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose got their first committee hearing Tuesday. Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, is sponsoring both proposals on the heels of passing new voter ID restrictions late last year.

The proposals

Gavarone’s first bill, SB 51, creates a new Election Integrity Division answering to the Secretary of State. The team would be responsible for investigating voter fraud “upon receiving a complaint” or at its own discretion. In addition to requiring the office investigate public complaints, the law directs it to produce an annual report.

The second proposal, SB 71, establishes another office under the Secretary of State’s umbrella. The Office of Data Analytics and Archives would serve as a clearing house for the statewide voter registration database. The measure also codifies what information boards of election must include in a bid for uniformity.

Election officials and voting rights organizations see room to improve Ohio’s election data management. But the involvement of a Donald Trump-aligned think tank is raising eyebrows.

It’s worth noting that the Secretary of State already investigates voter fraud. It’s incredibly rare; the secretary has said so repeatedly. Also, the division that investigates violations envisioned under SB 51 already exists.

Additionally, a provision in SB 71, known as the DATA Act, could actually lead to less voter information being publicly available.

Many boards ask for a voter’s phone number or email address to get in touch if an absentee ballot gets flagged, for instance. The voter file is a public record but Gavarone’s bill adds phone and email to the list of information that is not subject to disclosure.

The bill does not, however, shield birthdates. Despite noting a lot of good in the bill, David Becker from the Center for Election Innovation and Research, argued that including birthdates often leads to false positives when investigating voter fraud.

Gavarone’s pitch and the response

Despite primarily codifying existing practice, Gavarone insisted lawmakers need to act.

“Senate Bill 51 focuses solely on codifying the election related portion of that division,” Gavarone said, “because that part has a high probability of elimination in the future should we not have a Secretary of State as dedicated to election security and voter confidence as Secretary (Frank) LaRose is.”

Sen. Bill DeMora, D-Columbus, criticized the measure’s directive to investigate all public complaints.

“So now we’re going to any citizen, no matter how ill-informed they are, to say that we had fraud occur?” he asked.

“I mean, we’re opening ourselves up to look like Arizona,” he added.

“This is going to give the public greater confidence,” Gavarone insisted, “by being allowed to submit those concerns to the Secretary of State’s office for investigation.”

Since taking office, LaRose has uncovered 630 instances of potential voter fraud. Even leaving out odd-year and local issue elections, there have been well over 14 million ballots cast during that stretch.

Turning to the DATA Act, Gavarone made another appeal to encouraging public confidence.

“The DATA Act creates definitions that will clean up the data so that there are no perceived discrepancies to the public and that data reconciles following an election,” Gavarone argued.

“Senate Bill 71 also serves as an opportunity to cut down on some of the divisiveness and improve the confidence in election results by allowing anyone to do an apples-to-apples comparison of our election data,” she continued.

On the stage at CPAC last week, LaRose touted the input of the America First Policy Institute in crafting the proposal. While even some voting advocates in Ohio acknowledge shortcomings in how Ohio handles voting data, the involvement of AFPI — an organization building the policy scaffolding for a potential future Trump presidency — gives many pause.

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.

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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.