As confidence in democracy and elections take a hit, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose wants to devote one or two investigators to root out fraud.
LaRose, a Republican running for reelection this November, says illegal voting and election fraud are extremely rare, but they are still worth investigating.
He plans to hire the investigators for a new public integrity division following the 2022 elections. These investigators would probe threats ranging from racist robocalls made by far-right activists to an attempted data breach at the Lake County Board of Elections. The team would tackle illegal voting, campaign finance problems, cybersecurity and even unauthorized notaries.
Without a dedicated team, these investigations fall to state or local election officials with pile of other tasks. In some instances, federal investigators get involved.
"Ohio elections have safeguards built throughout them to ensure election integrity, and we think that this effort could create even more comfort for Ohioans," said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. "It would be a big plus if there was more transparency in money in politics."
But Democrats called LaRose's proposal a political stunt to further his future U.S. Senate aspirations. “He’s creating a taxpayer-funded solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in order to further his own political ambitions,” Ohio Democratic Party spokesperson Matt Keyes said.
'A crisis of confidence' in elections
One in five Ohioans listed "threats to democracy" as their top concern heading into the November elections, coming in second only to economic issues, according to a recent USA TODAY Network Ohio/Suffolk University poll. But the cause of those threats varies depending on one's political ideology.
"It's important that we address that kind of crisis of confidence, and part of that means we need to show Ohioans that we take this kind of crime seriously when it occurs," LaRose said. "It occurs rarely, and when it does, there will be consequences for it."
LaRose blames both Republicans and Democrats for questioning the results of elections when the race doesn't go their way.
"When your favorite team wins, you don't tend to question the decision made by the referees," he said. "But when your favorite team loses, sometimes it's a tendency to say, 'Oh, well, there were some bad calls.'"
LaRose has walked a fine line between criticizing how other states ran their 2020 elections while reassuring Ohioans that voting here is safe and secure. Former President Donald Trump − who erroneously claims that systemic voter fraud led to this 2020 defeat − endorsed LaRose's reelection bid.
"There are Republicans who are raising concerns that are not legitimate based on fears about certain kinds of voting machines or whatever else," said LaRose, without referencing Trump. "The 2020 election is over. The results of that election are known and clear that the winner of that election was President Biden."
One of LaRose's opponents in November, conservative podcaster Terpsehore "Tore" Maras, falsely claims that Biden, a Democrat, lost the 2020 race. Maras, running as an independent, insists that Ohio should eliminate all voting machines and return to paper ballots to ensure accurate results.
LaRose also faces Democrat Chelsea Clark, a Forest Park councilwoman. The little-known candidate is running an underfunded bid to unseat LaRose, whom she says embraced "MAGA lies."
How common is voter fraud in Ohio?
This year, LaRose referred 77 cases of potential voter fraud to local prosecutors. These cases include possible instances of people double voting, dead people voting and non-citizens voting.
Those numbers represent an extremely small percentage of the 5.9 million votes cast in 2020. And the cases rarely lead to convictions.
Still, every vote counts. Since 2020, 31 Ohio races have ended in ties.
"It corrodes confidence that people have in our elections," LaRose said of voter fraud. "It can actually change the outcome of an election."
Jessie Balmert is a reporter with the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau. It serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Ohio election integrity unit launches despite voter fraud rarity