Since taking office in early 2019, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has referred more than 640 cases of potential voter fraud to state or county investigators. Almost none of those incidents resulted in charges — much less convictions.
Although LaRose regularly notes voter fraud is rare, his rhetoric on the subject has grown noticeably sharper in recent years.
In February last year, LaRose announced 62 incidents and zeroed in on 27 cases where someone might have illegally cast a ballot in 2020’s election.
“Of the record-breaking nearly 6 million votes cast in that election,” LaRose said, “the 27 votes account for 0.0005 percent of the total.”
The Hill ran a story on LaRose’s announcement and made a connection to other reporting that undermined former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud. On Twitter, Secretary LaRose pushed back vehemently.
“Here they go again,” he began, arguing The Hill miscast his press release, “to falsely claim ‘there’s nothing to see here – move along.’ WRONG!” In a subsequent tweet, he insisted those referrals were “ONLY THE BEGINNING.”
“I’ll stop at nothing to expose any effort to cheat in Ohio & I’ll call out any attempt to downplay this threat to the integrity of our elections,” LaRose said.
About three weeks later, Donald Trump endorsed LaRose — the only secretary of state in the country to get the nod.
Checking the numbers
For all of LaRose’s bluster, however, it’s exceptionally difficult to follow up on his office’s voter fraud referrals. Ohio Capital Journal first requested information about the cases on March 9.
The secretary’s team understandably refused to share identifying information about the people implicated in their referrals. They explained because a referral is only an allegation, it would be inappropriate to publicize someone’s name before conducting a thorough investigation.
But LaRose’s office doesn’t handle the investigations. Instead, they pass the information along to state officials at the Bureau of Criminal Investigation or directly to county prosecutors. What’s more, despite regularly announcing its referrals, LaRose’s office doesn’t follow up on what becomes of those cases.
After discussion, LaRose’s office said it would provide a spreadsheet identifying the number of allegations per county, broken down into broad categories of potential offenses. It took five months for the office to provide that document.
As of June 23, 2023, LaRose had referred 641 cases of potential voter fraud to state or local authorities. Since he took office, Ohioans have cast more than 14.7 million ballots. That tally includes primary and general elections with federal candidates.
LaRose’s office doesn’t publish state-level turnout figures for odd-year local elections. Because August’s statewide ballot measure happened after LaRose’s office complied with the request, the 3 million plus ballots cast in that election are not included.
Still, even if every single incident LaRose flagged turned out to be voter fraud, it would translate to a fraud rate of just .0044%.
To determine how many of LaRose’s referrals resulted in charges, Ohio Capital Journal requested information about voter fraud prosecutions since January 2019 in all 60 counties where a referral originated. As of Sept. 22, 55 counties have complied with that request. The five counties that have not make up 12 of the 641 incidents LaRose’s office identified.
In all, prosecutors reported 18 incidents that resulted in charges during that timeframe. Another 12 remain under investigation. But a handful of the incidents they reported likely didn’t come from LaRose’s efforts.
Guest Commentary: After Issue 1, Ohioans Have a New Opportunity to End GOP Stranglehold: Many of the Republicans who got behind this fraud of an issue have now given Dems a very clear message to run on: The Republican Party is corrupt, two-faced, cynical and think we’re all too stupid to see through it.
In Ashland County, prosecutors described an incident where a nursing home orderly filled out the envelope on a resident’s absentee ballot, but that referral came from the board of elections. In Franklin County, one of the cases involved John Clark, who was convicted of lying on campaign finance filings tied to a bogus clean energy ballot measure. A handful of other incidents stem from violations between 2014 and 2016, well before LaRose took office.
Of those 18 charges, 13 resulted in convictions. Put another way, less than 3% of LaRose’s referrals had any merit. Compared to the overall number of votes cast, Ohio’s voter fraud rate pencils out to about .0001%.
LaRose didn’t agree to an interview request to discuss this project’s findings. Ohio Capital Journal also sent LaRose’s office a list of detailed questions. His team did not respond.
The most highly publicized case of voter fraud came to a conclusion in Cuyahoga County last month. James Saunders was convicted of voting twice in the 2020 and 2022 elections. The court’s findings indicate his pattern of casting ballots in Florida and Ohio may have been going on even longer. The judge sentenced him to three years in prison.
Saunders’ voter file doesn’t indicate a party affiliation, but campaign finance records show he’s given more than $5,600 to Donald Trump’s campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Geauga County prosecutors brought similar charges against Ashley Gelman in January. Like Saunders, she was convicted of casting a ballot in Florida and Ohio in the same election. She pleaded down to a first misdemeanor and served four days in jail. According to her Florida voter file, she’s registered as a Democrat.
Geauga County also had the only definitive incident in which a non-citizen was convicted of voting. Ronald Simpson has lived in Ohio for most of his life, but he isn’t a citizen. According to the prosecutor, he was adopted from the Caribbean as a toddler, but his parents never processed his citizenship. Although Simpson admitted he knew he couldn’t legally vote, he cast a ballot from 2014 to 2016.
But the prosecutor cited two important mitigating factors. First, Simpson checked the box identifying himself as a noncitizen on his registration. Second, federal officials had suggested they’d deport Simpson — then 60 years old — if he was convicted of a felony.
They struck a deal in which he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and served 10 days in jail.
Anecdotally, prosecutors in Union County mentioned an incident in which a Canadian suspect allegedly voted illegally. Those charges were later dropped. The case, however, didn’t show up in their search, which they said means it was either sealed or occurred long before LaRose’s term in office.
Sealed cases showed up a handful of other times as well. Warren County reported two sealed cases, both of which resulted in convictions. Delaware County reported two more but didn’t indicate the cases’ outcomes.
Delaware County also charged two incidents of absentee ballot fraud. In both cases, the defendant submitted a ballot on behalf of a recently deceased parent. Jennifer Frazer submitted her mother’s ballot and Edward Snodgrass — at the time a Republican Porter Township trustee — sent in his father’s. The court convicted Frazer of a fourth-degree felony; Snodgrass pleaded down to a first-degree misdemeanor.
Highland County prosecutors charged two women, Rhonda Matracia and Michelle Stant, under an obscure section relating to false statements on a petition or declaration of candidacy. The court files don’t elaborate on the nature of their offense. Both pleaded guilty and went into a diversion program.
In Greene County, prosecutors reported one case but said the AG’s office was handling it. In Mahoning and Montgomery Counties, prosecutors reported filing charges that were later dropped.
Faith in elections
While clearly there are cases of voter fraud, Ohio Capital Journal’s review demonstrates they are nowhere near as common or as organized as election skeptics claim. Importantly, none of the incidents involved the kind of in-person fraud that Ohio’s strict new photo ID requirements are meant to stamp out. Instead of a deluge of “dead people” voting, LaRose found two. The single case of a noncitizen casting a ballot is far from a pattern.
Even some prosecutors felt LaRose’s 641 referrals were inflated. One said the Secretary is painting with a broad brush; another that many of the incidents are more like irregularities than violations.
Many brought up examples of mistakes or confusion — incidents like an elderly voter casting a ballot in the wrong precinct. Others described noncitizens registering to vote without ever casting a ballot. They noted often those individuals identified themselves as a noncitizen on their registration form, but the board processed it anyway.
Although the secretary didn’t speak for this story, in the past he’s pointed to his referrals as reason to have faith in Ohio’s elections.
At a campaign stop in Lima last November, he bragged about “referr(ing) 630 individuals who we caught committing what we believe is election fraud.” He added that he’d recently referred 75 cases of people “who we believe voted in Ohio and in another state.”
LaRose argued that “the left” believes those hundreds of incidents are so insignificant that they would have him ignore voter fraud.
“That’s like saying that carjackings are rare in your neighborhood, but if one happens you want the police to investigate it, right?” LaRose said, “Of course we do. And that’s why Ohioans know that they can trust their elections.”
Jen Miller who leads the Ohio League of Women Voters takes a different view. She insisted it’s a good thing that the state is tracking potential fraud and that the handful of actual violations face consequences.
“Very rarely does this type of fraud occur,” she said, “but I am pleased to know that our systems here in Ohio work well in making sure that voters who want to double vote are caught and held accountable.”
But she doesn’t see LaRose’s public pronouncements about fraud instilling faith in state elections — quite the opposite.
“When (LaRose) continues to trumpet the number of cases that he flagged for investigation,” she argued, “he needs to make clear that these are not confirmed cases of voting fraud. And that very few of these cases ultimately will be found to be fraudulent.”
“Ohio voters need accurate information about our elections,” she added. “And when they do not have it, they may not have faith in our system.”
This story was originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal and republished here with permission.