By LOU WILIN
It’s about a year before the presidential primary in Ohio and 19 months from the 2020 general election, and someone is feeling the pressure.
Someone, that is, besides Donald Trump and the field of Democratic candidates that wants to keep Trump from a second term as president.
Welcome to the world of Frank LaRose, chief elections official in the key presidential battleground state of Ohio.
“The eyes of the world are on Ohio next year for what will unfortunately probably be the most contentious election of our lifetime,” he said Tuesday in an interview at The Courier.
Trump aggressively claimed election fraud and misconduct by Democrats in 2016 and 2018.
An anxious public awaits a special prosecutor’s investigation into, among other things, Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Democratic politicians claim voter suppression and Republican politicians claim voter fraud in recent elections.
“I don’t relish the fact that it’s going to be again, perhaps like I said, a very contentious election,” LaRose said. “But what I do take very seriously is the responsibility that I have.”
It helps that LaRose, the new Ohio secretary of state, has inherited a better situation than in some other states fraught in recent years with election misconduct and even fraud.
Ohio avoided the controversies because LaRose’s predecessor, Jon Husted, managed things well, LaRose said. Equally important: Bipartisan cooperation and commitment to fair and honest elections is generally thriving in Ohio’s county elections boards.
LaRose has been encouraged during visits to elections boards around the state in his first weeks on the job.
“What I inevitably find is that it’s hard to tell who the Republicans are and who the Democrats are,” LaRose said. “They are elections officials first and foremost.”
More troubling was a visit to Washington in his third week on the job. He and elections chiefs from other states got a classified briefing about things that operatives might attempt in order to diminish the credibility of elections.
“Obviously that’s a sobering moment for a brand new secretary of state,” he said.
But LaRose seems tailored for the moment. He spent part of his 10 years in the Army as a Green Beret working with the intelligence community.
“I know how to ask the right questions,” he said. “I know how to interface with our federal counterparts and make sure that we’re leaving no stone unturned to protect Ohioans’ elections and the integrity of our elections.”
LaRose has drawn on the experience of his predecessor, Husted, now lieutenant governor, as a mentor. He also has talked with Bob Taft, former secretary of state and governor, and with elections officials in other states.
He said his contacts in the Department of Homeland Security include those who focus on elections integrity and cybersecurity.
“We’re not going to rest. We’re not going to sacrifice anything as it relates to the integrity of Ohio’s elections and making sure that that process is carried out in a way that every Ohioan can be confident in,” he said.
LaRose said there is no evidence that any foreign or domestic entity has tampered with the way Ohio elections have been conducted.
But there is a potential for a crisis of confidence in the era of Facebook and Twitter and other social media.
“People have not tampered with elections, but they’ve tampered with our perception of elections,” LaRose said. “Foreign operatives have used social media to try to spread disinformation, to flood the zone with nonsense essentially to make average Ohioans question, average Americans question, how valid our form of government is.”
Politicians have fanned the flames by claiming widespread voter fraud or voter suppression.
Any amount of voter fraud or suppression is unacceptable, he said.
“But to say that both of them are widespread and systemic, and happening all the time, is just unfair. It’s not true,” LaRose said. “The reason why it works is because people are emotional about elections. We care about this. That’s why politicians tend to do that, but it corrodes the trust that we have.”
It also plays into the hands of foreign enemies trying to undermine the credibility of U.S. elections, he said.
Adversaries do not have to meddle with how an election is conducted to undermine democracy. They only have to shake people’s confidence in the validity of an election by, say, knocking the secretary of state’s website offline for an hour and posting a hacker group logo.
“Would it impact the way votes are counted? Absolutely not, but it would cause people to have a concern about the validity of our elections,” he said.
So, LaRose has proposed a bill in the Legislature to:
• Create a “cyber reserve,” a group of trained professionals who would be activated in a crisis.
• Create a new post in the secretary of state’s office: a chief information security officer to work at the state level and support Ohio’s 88 county elections boards.
• Give the secretary of state a seat on the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
• Require post-election audits after each election in Ohio.
Wilin: 419-427-8413 Send an E-mail to Lou Wilin