Ohio’s Democracy Pays the Price for LaRose’s Political Ambition

Red background with an image of Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) running and a blue-toned image of the state of Ohio split in two with LaRose in the middle.

Frank LaRose lurched to the right, flipped on democracy issues to tow the party line, rigged our maps, tried to undermine majority rule and it still wasn’t enough. And along his path of unbridled political ambition, our democracy has paid the ultimate price.

As a lifelong Ohioan who has had to live under (and fight against) the myriad of anti-voter policies that have been thrust upon us by Republicans in office — from voter purges to illegally gerrymandered maps and the most restrictive voter ID law in the country — it is infuriating to see Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (and others) try to paint himself as some sort of moderate Republican who has any real interest in safeguarding our democracy or in restoring integrity to our elections. 

One need only look back at his entire political career (as a state legislator, our secretary of state, and, now, a failed U.S. Senate candidate) to see that, at the end of the day, he has never actually been interested in pursuing, or helping to build, a healthy and robust people-powered democracy. 

To his credit, LaRose is very good at saying the right thing about voting rights and democracy. He knows how to talk the talk. But when it comes time to walk the walk, he chooses partisan interests over the interests of our democracy every time. 

Particularly after last year, when he used his official position as the state’s chief elections officer as a bully pulpit to campaign in favor of gutting our 111-year old right to amend our state constitution through direct democracy, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could still be deluded into believing LaRose at face value when it comes to voting rights while ignoring what he actually does while in office. 

For example, during his time as a state legislator, despite having voted to adopt some of the country’s most gerrymandered maps and sponsoring legislation to gut Ohio’s “Golden Week” — when voters could both register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day — he was named “Legislator of the Year” in 2015 by the Ohio Association of Election Officials because of his supposed dedication to minimizing gerrymandering and safeguarding voting rights.

Four years was apparently enough time for folks to have forgotten LaRose’s vote for districts that awarded his party 75% of our congressional delegation and nearly 65% of our legislative seats despite having won only about 50% of our votes in the previous decade. He later suggested he cast that vote in 2011 with a pit in his stomach

By 2015, LaRose was in the clear to wrap himself in the banner of being vocally anti-gerrymandering, just in time for the campaign for state legislative redistricting reform. And a few years later, in 2018, when Ohioans were voting on a congressional redistricting reform, LaRose penned an op-ed where he stated that “Even if our party benefitted, it’s still wrong. By gerrymandering districts, we send the message that winning elections is more important than finding effective policy solutions.” See what I mean about knowing how to talk the talk?

If that op-ed was all you knew of LaRose, perhaps you’d be shocked to find out that when it came time for him to actually follow the new mapping rules laid out in the reforms he himself championed, he instead towed the party line and voted to adopt unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts six separate times. 

That’s right. The same guy who was awarded for his dedication to minimizing the practice of manipulating district lines to benefit one political party over another voted for maps that are more rigged in favor of Republicans than the ones we had (and he also voted for) 13 years and two anti-gerrymandering reforms ago. 

And as if that weren’t bad enough, he also lent his support to the short-lived effort during our multi-year redistricting cycle from some Republican state legislators to impeach former Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor (also a Republican!) because she had the audacity to…uphold our constitution by striking down the illegal gerrymanders.

Just because LaRose’s path to the U.S. Senate hit a major roadblock doesn’t mean his anti-democratic actions will.

While I’m on a roll of naming ways LaRose has leveraged his elected position of power in an attempt to curry favor with an ever-growing anti-democratic faction of his party, let me turn to his tenure as our secretary of state. After all, LaRose’s sharp lurch to the right to advance his political aspirations for higher office has been most pronounced during his time in this role.

In 2020, when many of his Republican colleagues were busy drumming up lies about the integrity and security of our elections in service to their MAGA leader who was doing the same, LaRose mostly side-stepped getting into that particular swamp. 

But mostly isn’t entirely. On one side of his mouth, he was chiding those who called election integrity into question, but on the other he was consulting with prolific promoter of voter fraud lies, Hans Von Spakovsky, before blocking Ohio’s county boards of elections from setting up multiple ballot drop boxes at the height of the pandemic. 

A couple years later, LaRose needlessly set up an election integrity unit (perhaps inspired by a similar one Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis created), citing a “crisis of confidence” in our elections, but stopped short of naming Republicans’ penchant for making false claims about stolen elections as being a key exacerbation of that crisis.

In the summer of 2023, a month after having lauded it as a “one of the best fraud-fighting tools that we have,” LaRose pulled Ohio out of ERIC — the Electronic Registration and Information Center, a multi-state compact with the goal of helping states maintain clean voter rolls. This move came after ERIC was caught as a key target for far-right conspiracies about rampant voter fraud.

And no story about LaRose’s political rise powered by bus tossing our democracy at every chance he got would be complete without at least a short detailing of the last seven months during which he lost three statewide elections.

His sputtering path to his recent third place finish in the Republican Senate primary race started in late 2022 when he unveiled a proposal to strike a death knell for majority rule in Ohio. His bill — which would’ve increased the win threshold for people-powered ballot measures from 50% to 60% — was a direct shot at two upcoming ballot measures: abortion rights and redistricting reform (this time to create an independent citizen commission). When Ohio Republicans sense an electoral loss outside their control, they change the rules. 

When a similar version of his proposal eventually wound up on the ballot last summer — in a type of special election he had previously and successfully lobbied to outlaw — LaRose was, far and away, the foremost Republican official championing it on the campaign trail. And it wasn’t just that he was out campaigning for its passage while also being charged with overseeing the administration of the election writ large, but also that he was leveraging his role as the leader of the state Ballot Board to adopt incredibly biased and misleading ballot language in an attempt to boost its likelihood of passage. 

Unfortunately for him, voters saw through the bull and decisively rejected the 60% threshold measure by 14 points. And just 90 days later, LaRose suffered his second statewide election loss when Ohioans adopted an abortion rights constitutional amendment, this time by 13 points despite him again leveraging his control of the Ballot Board to adopt incredibly biased ballot language. Try as he might to block our political power through direct democracy, we defeated him through that same mechanism last year — twice.

Wrapping himself so intently to those two races was perhaps LaRose’s biggest mistake in relation to his aspirations to face off against progressive stalwart Sherrod Brown — the gamble, for him, did not pay off. 

He entered the thrust of the Republican primary with two major electoral losses on his record and no real campaign cash flow (his best bet on that front was infamous insurrection-supporter and Illinois billionaire, Dick Uihlein, but even that cash cow wasn’t enough to go up against two self-funded millionaire opponents). 

And when LaRose failed to get Trump’s endorsement (after an embarrassing level of groveling for it, including firing a longtime political advisor once his anti-Trump tweets were unearthed after his not-so-secret profile was tied to him), the end for this former moderate darling was in sight.

At the end of the day, while I take much glee in dunking on LaRose’s impressive ability to lose so badly in just seven months, I can’t do so without also taking stock of just how much havoc he’s wreaked on our democracy in his attempt to advance his political career. And with another three years remaining in his term as our state’s chief elections officer, I’m well aware of how much more he can squeeze into his remaining tenure as Secretary of State. 

Just because LaRose’s path to the U.S. Senate hit a major roadblock doesn’t mean his anti-democratic actions will. And, for that, Ohio voters will continue to pay the ultimate price. 

Katy Shanahan is an attorney and activist in her home state of Ohio where she serves as the Strategic Program Director for the Ohio Progressive Collaborative. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Shanahan writes about the state of voting rights in Ohio as well as redistricting both in Ohio and across the country.