Ohio Sec. of State LaRose flagged more than 520 cases of noncitizen voter fraud. Only one was legit.

By: - September 27, 2023 4:55 am

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has referred 641 cases of suspected voter fraud since taking office. The vast majority of those incidents, 521 in all, are allegations of a noncitizen violating Ohio’s elections laws.

But an Ohio Capital Journal review of LaRose’s referrals found just one case in which a noncitizen was charged with voter fraud.

That dramatic mismatch doesn’t come as a surprise to advocates working with immigrant and new American communities. But explaining the discrepancy is difficult.

LaRose didn’t agree to talk about this investigation’s findings, but prosecutors and community advocates offered a few ideas for how the secretary could wind up with so many false positives.

The accidental registration

Several prosecutors noted examples of people mistakenly filling out a voter registration form. They noted factors like a potential language barrier leading to confusion. Importantly many of these incidents of suspected “voter fraud,” don’t involve anyone casting a ballot.

In Ohio, even registering to vote is illegal for someone who isn’t a citizen. But the person has to do so “knowingly.” In handful of cases, prosecutors described suspects going so far as to check a box identifying themselves as a noncitizen and then never actually casting a ballot. That, they argued, is evidence of confusion — not fraud.

While mistaken applications do occur, Amina Burhami from the Council on American Islamic Relations, doesn’t think that’s the norm. She described working a table at events like registration drives.

“The first questions that our trainees will ask is, are you a citizen? You know, can you vote? And their answer is no, not yet,” Burhami said. “So they know. People who want to participate in the system are waiting anxiously to be able to do so. In a fashion that is legal.”

Guadalupe Velasquez who leads the nonprofit Welcoming City raised doubts as well, insisting “it has to be human error or miscommunication.” She explained people who are undocumented understand their position is tenuous, and they generally don’t see an upside to interacting with the government.

“In my experience, an undocumented individual is not going to sign up for something governmental,” she said.

The data lag

Since 2019, about 50,000 people have taken the oath and become naturalized citizens in Ohio according to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. As soon as they do so, they’re eligible to vote. Jen Miller who heads up the heads up the League of Women Voters of Ohio says it’s not uncommon for volunteers to be on hand with clipboards ready.

“Oh, it happens at the citizenship ceremony,” she explained.

Meanwhile, state law requires the Secretary of State to maintain a statewide voter database. To keep it current, state agencies like the BMV or Department of Job and Family Services regularly send in relevant information.

The problem is when someone becomes a naturalized citizen, they’re interacting with a federal agency. But when they register to vote, they’re interacting with a state or county agency.

“It’s very possible that the board of elections is processing correct voter registration materials, but that the database that the Secretary State is using is not updated as quickly,” Miller argued.

According to a BMV spokesperson, new citizens have to show up in person with documentation to update their citizenship status. Federal agencies don’t proactively update them on a person’s change in status.

Miller stressed, “it is completely fair that the BMV data would lag behind the records created through the citizenship ceremonies, right?”

But she argued there’s nothing stopping the Secretary from double checking those supposed violations against a list of recently naturalized citizens.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services operates a program known as SAVE that might offer a solution. Its primary mission is to help state agencies check an applicant’s citizenship status before providing benefits like Medicaid, unemployment insurance or food support. But there are five states — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Virginia — that use the system for voter registration.

Selective outrage

Because LaRose didn’t weigh in for this story, it’s not clear what circumstances lead his office to flag suspicious cases. It’s also unclear whether his team takes any additional steps to screen those cases before passing them along to investigators.

What is clear to immigrant and voting advocates is that it’s not enough. They contend the yawning gap between referrals and actual charges represents a systemic failure. Some worry that might be intentional.

“It’s unjustified,” Velasquez said. “I just feel like, especially looking at these cases, there is no pattern of immigrant, refugee, undocumented individuals trying to scam the system to help any one party whatsoever.”

Burhami insisted, “Somebody who’s voting that shouldn’t be voting is not okay — absolutely the case. But I think here, it’s, like, the selective outrage.”

Burhami drew a straight line from the broader voter fraud narrative, that LaRose’s referrals help fuel, to Ohio’s strict new photo ID requirements for voting. That measure, signed into law earlier this year, includes a provision that identifies noncitizens as such on their driver’s license. She argued that designation puts the community she serves at greater threat of discrimination.

“It’s not just the lopsidedness,” Burhami added. “It’s really fear-mongering, out of a problem that is not really there. And in doing that, it’s creating additional problems that we shouldn’t be having, because our democratic process should be accessible.”

Bryan Wright leads Cincinnati Compass, a nonprofit that works to encourage workforce development and civic engagement for immigrant and refugee communities in the Cincinnati area. He argued it looks like LaRose is responding to political incentives rather administrative ones.

“We see this across the board from different elected officials, potential candidates, where this comes up over and over again,” he said.

“I’ve had a similar conversation about voter fraud, I think, each election cycle?” he chuckled.

Wright said touting referrals is “enough to get into a news cycle and to play to a base, because they’ll just hear the 640. It’s a problem. It’s rampant.” And he argued amplifying the problem appears to be “part of a broader campaign strategy” for LaRose, who’s seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate next year. To Wright, if the Secretary isn’t working to address false positives, it speaks volumes about his intent.

“If you’re really committed to safe and fair elections and secure elections, then I would assume that it would be a priority to address that question,” Wright said. “But if you’re trying to increase that number, then I think your interest lies elsewhere.”

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.

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