Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose talks to reporters. (Susan Tebben/Ohio Capital Journal)
A new bill announced by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose to standardize and modernize state voting records is being welcomed by election administrators and some voter advocates, who say it could increase transparency and confidence in elections.
But the first-of-its-kind legislation was developed with help from a think tank that is leading the charge nationally for more restrictive voting rules and has been called a “White House in waiting” for a second Trump administration. The bill also is winning praise from conservative activists who have spread fear about illegal voting as part of an effort to pressure election officials to more aggressively purge voter rolls.
The measure, known as the Data Analysis Transparency Archive (DATA) Act, could offer a glimpse of a future conservative agenda on voting issues. At a Feb. 22 press conference announcing the bill, LaRose, a Republican, thanked the America First Policy Institute for “helping with the development” of the legislation. AFPI reportedly aims to create a policy platform for former President Donald Trump.
A spokesman for LaRose did not respond to an inquiry about AFPI’s role in developing the bill. But Hilton Beckham, AFPI’s director of communications, said via email that the group did not write the bill. Beckham said it came out of an AFPI report released last year, which found that many local election offices are failing to retain election data as required by law, and that in many counties, the total number of ballots cast doesn’t match up with the total number of registered voters who cast ballots.
“Being able to analyze election results in real-time will help find out why this is happening immediately,” Beckham added, “potentially catching unlawful activity, and eliminating distrust and conspiracy (theories) from voters caused by sloppy record keeping.”
The AFPI report notes near the end that, after reviewing AFPI’s findings, LaRose “spearheaded a national effort” to urge states to pass laws ensuring voter data is preserved.
Now, the two are teaming up to spread the word. On March 4, LaRose promoted the DATA Act alongside Hogan Gidley, a former Trump campaign spokesman who helps run AFPI’s elections policy arm, on an elections panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a major confab for GOP activists and officials.
And in late February, LaRose tweeted a picture of himself meeting with members of Congress’ “election integrity caucus” in Washington, D.C., “to share the Ohio model.” The caucus was founded by Rep. Claudia Tenney, a New York Republican who appeared on an AFPI voting panel in July, and who has said of the 2020 election: “We don’t know if it was stolen or not.”
These collaborations with election deniers and other backers of restrictive voting rules raise the question: Is LaRose’s bill a wonky and bipartisan measure — “something that should be embraced by both Republicans and Democrats,” as he put it at the Ohio press conference — that has the potential to make genuine improvements to how election officials maintain and publish voting records? Or could it help advance the agenda of national Republicans working to lay the groundwork for new voting restrictions by stoking fear about fraud?
A ‘gold standard’ for states
At the Ohio press conference announcing the bill, LaRose noted that he’s also spoken to other secretaries of state around the country. “They are interested in bringing this model to their states,” he said. “So something that’s starting here in Ohio could end up becoming the gold standard, again, for what other states want to do.”
The DATA Act would create standard definitions of key election data — for instance, how many people are registered, and how many voted on each day and by what method — for use by Ohio’s 88 county election offices; clarify what data the counties must retain and for how long; and set up an automated process for the state to collect the data.
A central agency within the secretary of state’s office would act as a clearinghouse, publishing easily accessible election data online, before, during, and after elections.
The result, backers say, would be to make it much easier for Ohioans — including those concerned about illegal voting, which remains extremely rare — to compare voting records across counties, and to ensure that both county-level and statewide numbers add up.
“When people look behind the curtain, what they’re going to see is how well-run our elections are,” LaRose said at the press conference. “The current lack of transparency in some ways breeds those conspiracy theories that are often not based in reality.”
But LaRose’s record on voting issues isn’t helping to reassure those raising concerns about the bill. He said in an interview at CPAC he is “actively” considering a U.S. Senate run, and he has been accused of inconsistency as he has tried to appeal both to conservative Republicans worried about fraud and to more moderate voters.
LaRose has often said that Ohio’s elections are secure, and when asked about 2020, he said: “I don’t believe it was stolen” (though he added: “I do believe that bad things happen that should not have happened”). But last year, he tweeted an attack on the “mainstream media” for “trying to minimize voter fraud” in the state. The idea that “there’s nothing to see here,” he added, is “WRONG.”
LaRose privately called Ohio’s state legislative maps, which were challenged as a pro-GOP gerrymander, “asinine,” not long before voting for them as a member of the state’s redistricting commission.
And on March 6, the same day three Republican-led states announced they were leaving the Electronic Registration Information Center, a well-regarded interstate system for sharing voter registration data, LaRose told ERIC in a letter that he was considering pulling Ohio out as well. A few weeks earlier, LaRose had expressed confidence in ERIC.
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A ‘clunky’ system
Ohio’s election administrators say streamlining the current low-tech process for counties to report election data to the state is badly needed.
For example, explained Aaron Ockerman, a lobbyist for the Ohio Association of Election Officials, during the state’s four-week early-voting period, the secretary of state sends out a survey asking the counties for voting data, including how many people voted in person each day, and how many absentee ballots were received. The counties respond by putting the numbers into an email and sending it.
“It’s clunky,” said Ockerman. “If there’s a way they can automate that process, that would make our lives easier and their lives easier.”
It can help voter advocates, too. Jen Miller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said her group has been calling for uniform data tracking and reporting making it easier to identify places where voters are facing access problems. Right now, she said, each county defines and reports the data in slightly different ways.
“We (currently) cannot compare election operations in one county to another cleanly,” Miller said. “We’re looking at apples and oranges.”
Miller said the LWV of Ohio hasn’t yet taken a formal position on the bill, but called it a “positive move.”
But Collin Marozzi, the deputy policy director for the ACLU of Ohio, said that while his organization, too, likes the bill’s data transparency provisions, AFPI’s involvement raises concerns.
“I’m disappointed that Ohio would entertain a pretty significant change to election law and registration records retention from such an openly partisan organization, and one that has affiliated itself with a former president who has consistently put forward bogus election fraud claims,” said Marozzi. “I’m not saying that on its face it’s a negative. But it’s having a hard time passing the smell test right now.”
Trump ‘White House in waiting’
Founded by a former Trump White House policy adviser, AFPI has signed up big-name Trump allies like former White House advisers Larry Kudlow and Kellyanne Conway, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Trump’s first trip back to Washington, D.C., after leaving office was to deliver the keynote address at AFPI’s America First Agenda Summit last July. Trump hosted a black-tie fundraiser for AFPI at Mar-a-Lago in 2021, and his PAC has donated $1 million to the group, according to Politico, which has reported that AFPI is often described as a “White House in waiting” for the former president.
AFPI has been a consistent advocate for stricter voting rules.
A 25-point AFPI policy document on elections lists almost every key priority of the “election integrity” movement, including requiring photo ID, restricting who can vote absentee, eliminating drop boxes, and banning the counting of ballots that arrive after election day.
The leadership of AFPI’s elections policy arm, the Center for Election Integrity, appears well-suited to this agenda. Gidley, the former Trump campaign spokesman who serves as CEI’s vice chair and top communications official, in 2020 warned about the potential for “massive fraud” from mail-in voting.
“It’s getting more difficult in this country to elect (supporters of strict voting rules) if we have countless examples of irregularities, illegalities, anomalies, and yes, fraud, in our election system,” Gidley declared at the CPAC panel with LaRose on March 4.
As Ohio Secretary of State, CEI chair Ken Blackwell made a string of decisions that restricted access to voting, especially for Democratic-leaning groups, in the 2004 presidential election’s pivotal state, while also serving as an Ohio co-chair of President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign.
Blackwell “saw his role as limiting the participation of Democratic voters,” then-Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat who led a congressional probe of the fiasco, has said.
Blackwell later served as a member of Trump’s voter fraud commission, which was disbanded without finding evidence of widespread voter fraud, after being sued by one Democratic commissioner who accused it of showing “troubling bias.”
The 2022 AFPI report that played a role in the DATA Act’s conception cites a 1960 federal law requiring the retention of election records. AFPI researchers made public records requests for voter data from the 100 most-populated counties in 14 swing states, including Ohio, and found that very few had the actual voter files from the 2020 election.
“This critical record-keeping shortcoming reduces election integrity and restricts researchers from doing a proper analysis post-election and to identify registration and voting discrepancies,” the report noted.
At the Feb. 22 press conference, LaRose echoed AFPI in referencing the 1960 law — which in fact was a civil rights measure aimed at making it harder for local election officials and citizens to keep minority voters off the rolls — to argue that counties are legally required to retain data.
Conservative activists pleased
Another group cheering the Ohio bill is the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a group of conservative legal activists that has frequently sued election officials for not purging voters from the rolls aggressively enough. PILF’s executive director and founder, J. Christian Adams, a veteran election lawyer, served on Trump’s voter fraud commission alongside Blackwell.
“This is exactly the best practices that the Public Interest Legal Foundation encourages states to adopt that make post election auditing easier,” Lauren Bis, a spokeswoman for the group, said via email, adding that the bill will allow Ohioans “to hold their election officials accountable.”
PILF has drawn criticism for using misleading data in some of its efforts to raise concerns about illegal voting. In 2019, it was forced to issue an apology to a group of Virginia voters who sued for defamation after a PILF report, “Aliens Invasion,” alleging large-scale illegal voting in the state, wrongly described them as non-citizens. The report included the voters’ names, phone numbers, addresses, and, in some cases, Social Security numbers.
In the current climate of heightened partisan tensions over voting, some voter advocates worry that by giving self-appointed fraud watchdogs more material to work with, the DATA Act could make it easier for them to issue sweeping challenges to large numbers of voters — or even to election results — on flimsy evidence, or to pressure election officials to more aggressively pare the rolls.
Other Republican-run states and conservative activists have recently sought to encourage voter challenges.
In the lead up to Georgia’s 2021 U.S. Senate runoff elections, which would determine Senate control, the activist group True the Vote challenged 364,000 Georgia voters, drawing a voter intimidation lawsuit. Months later, the state passed a sweeping voting law that empowered individual people to make an unlimited number of voter challenges.
Kayla Griffin, the Ohio director for the voter access group All Voting Is Local, said
that in addition to concerns about individual voter challenges, her group also worries that requiring election offices to produce voter data immediately after election day could lead to interference with the certification process, in which results are confirmed and declared official.
In recent years, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico all have seen efforts by GOP activists or officials to block or delay certification of local or statewide results — in the Michigan case, the outcome of the state’s 2020 presidential election were at issue — based on unfounded claims about irregularities. Though none have succeeded in subverting results, they have stoked further distrust in elections.
“We want those ballots to be protected, and we want certification to go off smoothly, without public pressure to cave and not certify an election,” said Griffin. “So there needs to be some guardrails around that as well.”
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Details pose questions
Buried in the DATA Act’s fine print are details that exacerbate some worries.
The bill requires local election offices to send the state a list of registered voters each day, starting 45 days before an election and ending 81 days after. Why 81 days? Marozzi, of the ACLU, said that’s how long the counties have by law to change their final canvass of results — something, Marozzi said, that “adds to our concerns.”
David Becker, the founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, and a leading expert on election administration, said he sees “a lot of good things” in the bill’s transparency and record-keeping provisions, but flagged another little-noticed danger: While some other states’ laws requiring public disclosure of voter data withhold voters’ birthdates, the Ohio bill doesn’t.
That’s not only a privacy concern, said Becker. Studies have found that efforts to use birthdates to identify people voting illegally have often generated false positives, because it’s not rare for different people to have the same first name, last name, and birthdate. That means the data made accessible by the Ohio bill could lend itself to being misused by anti-fraud activists, who often have more zeal than data expertise.
“Any match based on first name, last name and birthdate is a bad one,” said Becker.
Details aside, LaRose argued at the press conference that the DATA Act is needed to restore faith in elections, which he said has been badly damaged in part by false claims about fraud.
“There is a crisis of confidence — that’s not hyperbole,” LaRose said.
But Griffin expressed frustration that Ohio’s decision-makers have rushed to draft measures that respond to false public perceptions — she cited both the DATA Act and Ohio’s controversial new voter ID law — while often ignoring concrete problems of access, including a lack of drop boxes and early-voting locations in many counties, that her group has long been raising the alarm about.
“We have pushed through bills quickly off of perception,” Griffin said. “But we have been telling you for years of the actual things that are broken in our election system.”
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