Ohio Secretary of State-Elect Chooses Controversial Former Cincinnati Mayor for Transition Team

Incoming Secretary of State Frank LaRose has tapped Ken Blackwell, who held the job last decade, to help lead his transition team. But critics say Blackwell is too partisan for the role.

Nov 13, 2018 at 12:39 pm
click to enlarge Former Cincinnati Mayor and one-time Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell in 2011 - Gage Skidmore
Gage Skidmore
Former Cincinnati Mayor and one-time Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell in 2011

Now that the dust from the 2018 election is settling in most places, we're starting to see incoming elected officials in Ohio name transition teams: the folks who will help them hit the ground running when they take office in January.

Ohio's incoming Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, announced his picks Nov. 9. One, former Ohio House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, raised few eyebrows. But the other pick is a different story.

LaRose has tapped former Cincinnati Mayor and one-time Ohio Treasurer and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell as co-chair of his transition team. That makes sense, at least at first glance. Blackwell once held the job LaRose is moving into, after all.

The incoming Secretary of State released a short statement about his picks.

"I am honored to have the guidance of Speaker Davidson and Secretary Blackwell as we put together a team that will work every day to serve Ohioans," he wrote.

But critics have some qualms, to put it lightly.

Democrats are calling Blackwell "an election conspiracy theorist" for recent statements he's made about election recounts in Florida. And other critics have pointed to errors and election mishaps during his time as Ohio Secretary of State.

Blackwell was in that role during the 2004 election, when a number of voters saw hours-long waits to vote. In the run up to that election, Blackwell put in place restrictions on voter registration, including one that directed boards of elections to reject voter registration documents that weren't on paper thicker than postcards. After an outcry, Blackwell's office later withdrew that restriction.

The Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union last year compiled a list Blackwell's actions they believe represent voter suppression during his time as secretary of state. Blackwell, however, defended his handling of the 2004 election during a 2006 bid for governor.

"Except for the political lunatic fringe, nobody will make the case that this election was handled in an extremely partisan fashion," he said at the time. "I managed successfully a bipartisan elections system across 88 counties."

There were also high-profile errors in the Secretary of State's office during Blackwell's tenure, including two separate incidents in which his office accidentally released the Social Security numbers of millions of Ohio voters. In the first incident, about 1.2 million Social Security numbers were posted on the Secretary of State's website in March 2006. During the second incident in April that year, another 5.7 million Social Security numbers were sent out on CDs with voter lists that went to political campaign operatives, among others. Under Ohio law, those numbers are supposed to remain confidential. The incidents made national news.

Blackwell popped up again on the national radar a decade later when President Donald Trump chose him to serve on his voter fraud commission. Trump, without presenting evidence, claimed after the 2016 election that between three and five million people voted illegally. The panel was convened to find proof of that claim.

In June 2017, legal battles between some states and the Trump administration erupted when the commission requested the personal data of voters across the country. Many states declined, or provided only some of the data requested. 

The commission perch fit with long-running claims by Blackwell that voter fraud is rampant — an allegation that has little, if any evidence to back it, elections experts say. Trump folded the commission in January this year after Republicans, Democrats and election experts deeply criticized the president's claims.

"As Secretary of State, I am deeply involved in election integrity issues," Main Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a member of Trump's commission, wrote in August. "Yet neither through my work, nor my time on the Commission, have I ever seen 'substantial evidence of widespread voter fraud.' Rather, these assertions appeared aimed at that pre-ordained objective: ratifying the President's statements that millions of illegal votes were cast during the 2016 elections."

The National Association of Secretaries of State also pushed back on Trump's claims, releasing a statement last year saying it knew of no evidence of widespread voter fraud. And in December 2016, Trump's own lawyers argued voter fraud did not exist to block an attempted recount in Michigan pushed by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.

The implosion of Trump's voter fraud commission hasn't mellowed the president's allegations around elections, nor has it cooled Blackwell's, apparently. Both are currently claiming, again without evidence, that recounts in Florida's Senate race between outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson and its governor's race amount to Democrats trying to "manufacture voters," as Blackwell puts it, to steal the election.

Trump, Scott and others, including Blackwell, have made inflammatory comments about voter fraud — including equating mail-in and provisional ballots with "made up" votes — that election watchers and law enforcement officials have rebutted.

The controversy has centered around Broward County, where a number of errors have taken place at the county board of elections over the years. The recount effort in the highly populated, heavily-Democratic county has seen some minor mixups as poll workers led by controversial Broward County Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes count more than 714,000 ballots, but a county judge yesterday said he saw no evidence of election fraud and challenged attorneys critical of the process to present proof before making further claims to that effect.

Despite that, Blackwell has continued making claims about election fraud in Florida.

"During my 8 years of Secretary of State, we didn't allow radical advocates of Voters Without Borders to push any election within the margin of litigation," Blackwell tweeted yesterday.

While Democrats have a partisan interest in waving the red flag around Blackwell's role in LaRose's transition into the Secretary of State's office, others have also questioned the move.

"That is careless talk," the Akron Beacon Journal wrote in an editorial about Blackwell's comments on the Florida election, "the kind Frank LaRose would do well to avoid as he seeks to earn public confidence in the way he conducts the secretary of state's office."