SIDNEY – Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said threats against the United States’ elections are real, but Ohio’s voting systems are the most secure in the nation ahead of next year’s 2020 presidential election.
“We’re better protected than any other state in the nation, and that’s not just hyperbole,” LaRose, a Republican from northeast Ohio, said. “This is what the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is telling other states to try to emulate. We get calls from other secretaries of state almost every week in our office saying can you send us that security directive because I heard from DHS that we should try to do what Ohio is doing.”
LaRose, who was sworn in as Ohio’s 51st secretary of state in January, visited the Shelby County Board of Elections Wednesday morning to meet with board members and other county officials. He’s visited almost 60 of the state’s 88 board of elections since taking office and plans to visit the rest of the counties by the end of the year.
As secretary of state, LaRose’s duties include serving as Ohio’s chief elections officer. He oversees the election process and appoints members to the board of elections in each of Ohio’s 88 counties.
LaRose said his passion for voting is inspired in part from his 10 years of service in the military. He first served in the United States Army with the 101st Airborne and then in the U.S. Special Forces as a Green Beret, earning a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. During his deployments to Iraq and Kosovo, he saw people risk their lives to vote.
“I’m passionate about elections having seen people risk their lives seriously to cast ballots in combat zones where I served,” he said.
Domestically, LaRose praised the state’s local election officials for their work throughout the year, their bipartisanship and their commitment to ensuring Ohio’s elections are fair and accurate. But he fears the 2020 presidential election will be the most contentious in American history, increasing pressure on officials to reinforce confidence in voting systems.
“The eyes of the world will be on Ohio next year,” LaRose said. “This is our burden as Buckeyes. We accept that. The rest of the country and the rest of the world watches what Ohio does.
“When you meet somebody from oversees – and again, I’ve traveled to a lot of places and observed elections in foreign countries – when you meet somebody and you tell them you’re from Ohio, they generally have just a couple questions. They want to know if you’ve met LeBron James, right? And then they also know that Ohio is a swing state. They’re seeing it on their television screens, they’re reading it in their newspapers, they know that Ohio plays this large role in selecting the leader of the free world, and so because of that we have a duty to be ready for that.”
Foreign adversaries, American politicians and others question the validity of elections and overhype concerns for their own self-serving reasons, LaRose said.
“When there are problems we need to call them out so that we can fix them, but when we dwell on that or when we constantly hype that, what it does is has a chilling effect on participation,” he said. “When we talk down elections, when politicians both on the right and left tell people elections are screwed up, then they’re going to believe that, and they’re not going to want to participate as a result. We know that not to be true. We know that we run fair and accessible and honest elections in Ohio.”
To protect Ohio’s voting systems, the state has numerous security protocols.
Voting equipment must be certified at the federal and state level and then must be tested locally before elections. Following elections, audits must be conducted utilizing paper ballot backups that each voting machine is required to have in Ohio.
Voting machines in Ohio aren’t allowed to be connected to the internet, preventing people from remotely hacking them. To prevent on-site tampering, machines are stored in double locked rooms that require keys from both Democrat and Republican board of election officials to open.
Additionally, USB drives used to transfer data from tabulation equipment to internet-connected reporting equipment are only used once, preventing the possible spread of computer viruses.
“When you’re talking about security, the bad guys only need to be right once,” LaRose said. “We have to be right every day, every moment of every day.”
LaRose, who served two four-year terms in the Ohio Senate, also has worked with lawmakers to introduce legislation that would reform the state’s voter registration system. His proposal would automatically register eligible voters when they file taxes, renew a driver’s license, get a fishing license or have other interactions with a state agency, unless they choose to opt out.
The proposal would get more Ohioans registered to vote, LaRose said, and would help ensure voter rolls remain accurate.
“First of all it’s good to get more people registered to vote, but second the most important thing we can do to fight fraud is to maintain accurate lists,” he said. “And we currently rely on this sort of analogue system in a digital era where we produce a lot of paper that gets shipped down here then they have to do the data entry to sort of figure out what you wrote on your voter registration form and enter it in manually and that kind of thing.
“When we can keep people’s addresses up to date, that’s important. Right now as a result of Ohio’s supplemental process you go six years of inactivity then you don’t respond to the mailings then the assumption is that person is dead or has moved out of state or that’s a duplicate or whatever else. We shouldn’t have to wait six years in order to find out if somebody has moved. We should have ways of doing that in real time, and again in 2019 we expect better than sort of this old analogue system from the last century.”
Along with election security, LaRose also responded to concerns from local officials about candidate petitions and unfunded state mandates.
Shelby County Commissioner Bob Guillozet voiced concerns about candidates for the November 2019 elections who were rejected because of errors on their petitions.
LaRose suggested petition forms could be redesigned to make them less complicated. He also said county board of elections should be allowed to provide guidance to candidates on how to fill out forms, something Shelby County officials said was prohibited by former Secretary of State Jon Husted, Ohio’s current lieutenant governor.
“Common sense is that there ought to be some level of support,” LaRose said while also encouraging the county’s Republican and Democrat parties to assist candidates.