The primary election for Ohio Secretary of State, as for other statewide offices, is May 3. In the secretary of state’s case, voters’ choice will decide how other elections are handled. Only the Republican nomination is contested, between incumbent Frank LaRose and former state legislator John Adams.
The secretary of state is one of six members of the executive department, established in Article III of the Ohio Constitution. The officeholder serves as the state’s chief election officer, appointing members to Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections; and also oversees business registration and records, according to the office’s website.
John Adams is running for Ohio secretary of state based on suspicion — his and others’ — about the previous election.
“Bottom line is I would have to say I am running because since the 2020 election, polling has consistently showed that voters have lost confidence in the election process,” he said.
Adams alleges LaRose wants to loosen election standards, while he’s for “tightening up.”
Adams said voter rolls are not as accurate as officials claim, and scoffs at LaRose’s assertion that Ohio’s 2020 election was secure. He notes that in December 2021, the conservative Heritage Foundation rated Ohio as tied with South Dakota for 22nd place on its “election integrity scorecard.”
Adams, 62, graduated from Celina Senior High School and attended Mesa Community College and Edison State Community College. He is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, including service as a Navy SEAL, according to his campaign website. The founder of Francis Furniture Store, Adams was elected to the Ohio House in 2006 and served until 2014. He held the positions of assistant majority floor leader and majority whip before leaving the House due to term limits.
Adams ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2016, losing in the primary to state Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima.
Adams said he wants to make it mandatory to show a photo ID to vote. Currently acceptable voter ID in Ohio, like many other states, does not have to include a photo; but must be a recent official document bearing the voter’s name and address, such as a utility bill or bank statement. As of July 2021 only seven states required a photo ID, while 15 states didn’t require any documentation to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“I would just handle things differently,” Adams said.
He is deeply suspicious of grant money from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and denounces LaRose for allowing its acceptance in Ohio. Prior to the 2020 election, Zuckerberg donated more than $400 million through the nonprofit Center for Tech & Civic Life and Center for Election Innovation & Research foundations to help upgrade technology and processes in local election offices around the country. County boards of election could apply for grants to pay for specific improvements. The money went to 28 states, with Ohio receiving $8.4 million, according to the two nonprofits.
Some conservatives alleged the money influenced the election, prompting bans in many Republican-run states — including Ohio — on accepting donations for election funding. Zuckerberg has said he will not offer such grants for the 2022 election.
Adams has said he would end Ohio’s involvement with the Electronic Registration Information Center. ERIC, a bipartisan nonprofit group supported in part by the Pew Charitable Trusts, is a collaboration between 32 states to improve the accuracy of voting rolls. States share their voter registration and driver’s license data, and get back reports showing who has moved or died, duplicate registrations and unregistered potential voters.
Jim Butler, Dayton-area lawyer and former state representative, said he has known Adams for more than 12 years, starting with Butler’s arrival in the state House while Adams was in a leadership position.
“I knew that he had a reputation for integrity and for acting honorably in government,” Butler said. “He quickly proved that to be true by demonstrating that he has the rare combination in government of a desire to always do the right thing, the honorable thing, that will benefit the people and not special interests; and also the courage to act on that in the legislature.”
He said Adams would be a natural fit for the crucial job of overseeing elections.
“You certainly want to have someone of the highest honor and integrity in that position, and John is one of the most virtuous people I know,” Butler said.
Incumbent Secretary of State Frank LaRose is seeking a second four-year term. He said COVID-19 and the still-ongoing legislative redistricting process have cost his office a lot of time, so he wants four more years to finish his initiatives. Those include the “next iteration of cybersecurity,” improved voter registration and maintenance of voter lists, he said.
“The confidence of the voters in their elections is paramount,” LaRose said. He rejects the idea that voting must be a choice between security and convenience.
“We have both in Ohio,” he said
LaRose hedges about the 2020 election as a whole: “to be clear there are problems that occur in other states.”
But he said Adams and others “sometimes conflate national narratives, national news stories, with what happens here in Ohio.” LaRose says there’s always room for improvement, but insists the 2020 election results here were accurate.
He said U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, called Ohio the “gold standard for election security” when they were on a panel together last year.
Former President Donald Trump won Ohio by nearly half a million votes in 2020 but lost the national popular vote by 7 million and the Electoral College vote by 232 to 306. Trump and many of his supporters have made persistent claims of voter fraud, but had dozens of lawsuits thrown out for lack of evidence. Post-election reviews in multiple states also turned up no substantial evidence.
Out of nearly 6 million votes cast in Ohio during the 2020 general election, LaRose’s office turned up only 27 possibly illegal votes and turned those cases over to prosecutors.
LaRose, 43, grew up near Akron and graduated from Copley High School. He joined the U.S. Army in 1998 and became a Green Beret. While in the military, LaRose saw people cast their first meaningful ballots in Kosovo and Iraq, some risking their lives to do so, he said.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” LaRose said.
He attended Ohio State University, graduating in 2007, then worked for a consulting firm.
LaRose said he got into politics “kind of by accident,” volunteering to work on campaigns. He was elected to the Ohio Senate in 2010 and served until 2018, when he ran for secretary of state.
In the Senate, LaRose backed several bills to improve voting security and access, he said.
“I sponsored the bill that created online voter registration in Ohio,” LaRose said.
Jeff Rezabek, now director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, knew LaRose from 2015 to 2018 while LaRose was a state senator and Rezabek was a Republican state representative. They worked on several bills together, Rezabek said.
Since becoming county elections director in 2021, he has been in frequent contact with LaRose. Rezabek said the secretary of state’s office is now one of the best-run offices he interacts with.
LaRose provides “great guidance” to boards of election, is accessible, and listens to what local election officials need, Rezabek said. He brought the military concept of an “after action review” to elections, learning in retrospect how to do better, Rezabek said.
LaRose said “a sense of mission,” acquired in the Army, drives him as secretary of state.
One effort of which he is proud is the expansion of the “Safe at Home” program, which allows survivors of domestic violence to vote while keeping their current addresses private. A desire to avoid their abusers kept many survivors from voting, he said. Now the program is used by more than 2,000.
In his role overseeing businesses, LaRose said he wants to push for less regulation. He holds small-business roundtable discussions “nearly weekly,” and some of those discussions from 2019 resulted in a recent law to make starting a business easier for minorities, women and veterans, LaRose said.
Chelsea Clark is running unopposed in the Democratic primary for secretary of state, and will face the winner of the LaRose-Adams race in November. Clark, 37, is originally from Allen County. She graduated from Elida High School and Miami University, then worked as a financial analyst and a teacher before founding the Cincinnati STEM Lab.
Clark is in the first year of her second four-year term on Forest Park city council. She said the secretary of state’s duties shouldn’t be seen through the lens of partisanship.
Clark said she supports expanded voting access and registration, improved cybersecurity and new resources for business startups.
Legislation LaRose has supported makes it harder for college students to vote and decreases electoral efficiency, she said.
“When you lack efficiency, you also lack cost-effectiveness,” Clark said. That and the drawn-out redistricting process, in which LaRose has consistently supported Republican-drawn maps that the Ohio Supreme Court then rejected, has cost excessive amounts of taxpayer money, she said.
Clark said she knows from starting her own business that not all entrepreneurs will have the help they need to navigate the legal and financial process.
“I’d like to see an office of entrepreneurship start, so it can be a one-stop shop for small businesses,” she said.
A third Republican candidate, Terpsehore Maras, was disqualified in February due to paperwork errors and failure to provide enough valid signatures for her candidacy. LaRose’s office said that while Ohio requires 1,000 valid signatures for a candidate to appear on the ballot, county election boards could only validate 556 for Maras. She appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, but in March the court upheld her exclusion.
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