Small business owner and Forest Park City Councilwoman Chelsea Clark is challenging current Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) as she vies for the state’s top elections position. For more than a year, LaRose has not only used his position on the Ohio Redistricting Commission to block map after map, but has also defended these actions in court. Backed by former President Donald Trump, LaRose notably recognized President Joe Biden’s win after the 2020 election.
In Democracy Docket’s latest candidate Q&A for the 2022 cycle, Ohio secretary of state candidate Chelsea Clark provides her thoughts on the state’s redistricting mess, explains why counties are now refusing to certify elections and tells us the most underrated fact about Ohio (hint: it’s not what you’d expect about a landlocked state).
Responses have been edited for style and clarity.
How do you plan to use your position as secretary of state to protect the right to vote in Ohio?
First and foremost, [Ohio] only has one ballot [drop] box in a county, and our secretary of state has limited that access where people return their completed ballots. Making sure that we’ve got multiple accessible and secure ballot boxes through a county is very, very important. Also, making sure that we’ve got automatic voter registration in place for our kids who are turning 18 — that is going to be one of the best and quickest ways we can expand our voting pool. And ending unnecessary voting purges. In the state of Ohio, one of the ways that voter suppression takes on completely new forms here (and is pretty silent and under the radar) is these extreme voter purges. We’re talking in the hundreds of thousands. Eliminating unnecessary voter purges, which right now are targeting communities of color and young people and, of course, Democrats to Republicans two to one, that has to end. Then, expanding early voting days — to weekends and times and hours that allow working folks to actually be able to engage. Lastly, nationally we are dealing with threats against our democracy and that comes, and is allowed to come, because of a lot of misinformation and a lot of intentional breaking of systems. My responsibility, and one thing that will also come first, is making sure that you actually restore people’s faith in a system. That is going to take time, but it’s going to be done when you have authentic leadership that is transparent, honest, does what it says it’s going to do and that’s first looking out for the voters and their interests.
The secretary of state’s office is critical in certifying election results, a historically routine practice that has been politicized and misrepresented due to the “Big Lie.” Why do you think counties across the country have refused to certify election results and do you expect this trend to continue?
The only reason they’re refusing to certify election results is because they’re not in the favor that they wanted them to be. Most people think that Ohio is a very red state, but it’s actually not. When you look at overall voter sentiment on the state scale it’s about half Democrat-Republican. So that trend is going to continue because you’ve got people who are that are occupying positions of power right now who know that the only way they’re going to continue…to have these spheres of influence and the money that comes along with their special interests is to make sure that they exploit people and reduce voter access. If they allowed everyone the same advantage by birthright in voting and unencumbered access, then that would tilt the balance and their positions would be very threatened. So they are going to hold on for dear life to maintain their power and control, and that’s the only reason they’re refusing to certify these elections. It’s against what they’ve held an oath of office to do. This is against democracy. These are the very foundational principles when it comes to our democracy and they’re obstructing it, and they’ll continue to do so until we stop them with the vote.
It’s been a year of map drawing in Ohio and the state still doesn’t have a congressional map for 2024 and beyond. What do you make of your state’s redistricting process and what, if anything, would you change about it?
In 2018, 74.89% of Ohioans — an overwhelming majority, we consider that — voted for redistricting reform and fair maps. The current redistricting commission, which is made up of seven people — five GOP and two Democrats — was intended to be a bipartisan commission. It’s not. What the GOP on this commission has done since last year — since the very beginning following the decennial census — is they have obstructed this entire process and they have blown past constitutional deadlines. We have paid independent mapmakers hundreds of dollars an hour, all for [the GOP] to refuse to even consider maps that actually are constitutional. What happened was these maps were consistently contested because they weren’t fair. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed, and found that both the congressional and legislative are unconstitutional. One of the reasons [the secretary of state] position is so critical to our democracy and voting rights here in the state is because the secretary of state is a voting member on that commission.
And this secretary of state, my opponent, LaRose, seven times voted for maps that were ruled unconstitutional by our Ohio Supreme Court and a chief justice who is a Republican. The reason that’s such a problem is that he had one job to do on that commission. Well, he had a couple jobs to do: listen to the will of the people and do the work of the people, which would have meant to stand against his party and go against party lines for maps that he knew were unconstitutional, and vote no, and he refused to do that. He refused to carry the will of Ohio voters forward. Those are the kind of people we have operating as the secretary of state and who will undoubtedly certify elections that will only be in his favor.
The Ohio Redistricting Commission (ORC) failed to produce a new congressional map by the Sept. 17 deadline after being ordered to do so by the Ohio Supreme Court. What did you expect would happen with this round of maps?
[The ORC members have] not been meeting as they need to because, again, the GOP on this commission knew that they were going to just run out the clock and not produce maps. The problem with this situation is, one, it’s unprecedented, right? When the law was written, you didn’t assume that public servants — folks who have taken an oath of office to do the right thing for voters and for people — would disregard it and try every trick in the book not to do the right thing, the constitutional thing and the law-abiding thing. You just didn’t think that was going to happen. There are very little consequences to this behavior. We’re not talking about folks being jailed. We’re not talking about folks being fined. Since we don’t have these levers of extreme punishment, which we should and which they should face, we’ve got folks who are just going to continue to run out the clock and say, “Well, you know, can’t do anything else about it.” Like they did in the summer, I’m sure that they’ll seek a federal court opinion, which we know what happened with our federal courts across the country being stacked by our former president. These are all just tactics so that [the GOP] can make sure they retain power, however illegal and criminal; that’s what they’re going to do.
Last year, Ohio Republican legislators added a new provision to the state budget banning the secretary of state from conducting a series of voter education efforts that successfully recruited new voters last year. What impact do you think this provision will have on Ohio voters this November?
We’re already seeing the impact. We had an unprecedented second primary on Aug. 2, and we had the lowest voter turnout [in a statewide primary] since the 1960s. So people are not aware, they’re not educated. And, again, these are all voter suppression tactics. It’s no longer literacy tests or poll taxes. It’s unnecessary, extreme hundreds of thousands of voter purges, it’s limiting ballot box access, it’s closing down polling locations in communities that are struggling, it’s reducing the early voting hours and, this one that you’re speaking of right now, is another tactic. It is a layered tactic in making sure that people are uneducated and don’t know why they should vote and don’t know the purpose and meaning of voting, why it’s so local and how it can be of benefit to them and their children, helping their interests move forward and helping them have a voice. That is a critical element and that’s why [these Republican legislators] put that in place because, again, they have to employ so many tactics in order to weed out American citizens who are just trying to perform their civic duty and vote because if [these legislators] allowed them all to vote, they would lose their power. They’d have to relinquish it because they’d all be voted out.
Despite there being no evidence of widespread voter fraud, LaRose continues to seek out cases for further investigation and even prosecution. Why do you think that is?
One of the things LaRose has become accustomed to doing, and he’s done this even longer than the four years that he’s been in this actual office, is he says one thing and he does another. His goal is to move up the political ladder with power and influence, and it’s not to actually do the job and do the hard work. He started sowing this tale that, initially, we have secure elections. That was the first thing he said, and then he had to double back because he needed to seek out Trump’s endorsement.
The way he was going to secure that [endorsement] was to also get on the bandwagon of the “Big Lie” that under 70 intentionally fraudulent ballots were found in the state of Ohio. We had over 5.9 million people vote. I’m a small business owner, and when we look at numbers and data, on a bar graph, that’s not even visible. It’s less than 0.01% of voter fraud. So no, we actually do have secured elections.
But the only way to get people to support the narrative and the idea that the elections are false and you can’t trust them, that we need all these voter suppression tactics and to join the “Big Lie” bandwagon is to make sure that people don’t believe in a system, that people don’t believe that their voices are heard and this is really what that is speaking to. We’re operating in a system that’s being intentionally broken. The system is not broken in and of itself. It’s got pressures on it that are making it crack and break and crumble because this is all a threat to our democracy.
If you weren’t running for office, what would you be doing?
Continue being a business owner.
Go-to walk up song?
This Girl is On Fire by Alicia Keys.
Most underrated fact about Ohio?
We have beautiful, beautiful places. We actually have beaches and you can enjoy all seasons here. You can go from the beach to even the mountains here — it’s absolutely beautiful, and a great place to learn and a great place to play.