On a drizzly Saturday, I meet Frank LaRose at the Marion Popcorn Festival.
“So what do you guys suggest?” LaRose asks at one booth, ducking under the tent to get out of the rain. “I’m definitely going to get some kettle corn,”
With a sly deadpan, the salesman says, “Well, I suggest you get three, because it’s $3 a bag or three for $9.”
After he stops laughing, the Republican candidate for secretary of state agrees, calling it a great deal. He picks up a bag each of kettle corn, Chicago mix and jalapeno cheddar.
As the November election nears, the race to be Ohio’s next governor has hoarded most of the attention. But voters will cast ballots on several other races, including secretary of state, an office helping shape future elections.
LaRose will face off against Democrat Kathleen Clyde. Both currently serve in the state legislature, and they’re trying to make the leap from representing a few hundred thousand constituents to all 11.5 million Ohioans.
That’s complicated by one very important question on many voters’ minds: What exactly does the secretary of state do?
“If you ask the average Ohioan, they probably would not know,” Ohio State political scientist Herb Asher says with a chuckle.
The secretary of state has a grab bag of responsibilities: licensing businesses, collecting campaign finance records, even commissioning notaries. But Asher says their biggest job is managing elections.
“The key thing about the Ohio secretary of state is that he or she is an independently elected statewide officer who’s most visible set of responsibilities deals with running elections in Ohio," Asher says. "So, chief elections officer of the state of Ohio."
Most recently, Ohio’s election system has been in the news for how it maintains its voter rolls. Current Secretary John Husted won a narrow victory when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice of removing voters from rolls after they fail to vote in six consecutive elections and don’t return a notice sent to their registered address.
Clyde says that approach is unacceptable.
“I want to center this,” she says. “Bring us back to a normal process that makes sure we’re not catching people who are still eligible to vote, and still want to vote, that we see in this broken process that Ohio uses now.”
LaRose, meanwhile, isn’t exactly trumpeting the procedure.
“We’ve got a Supreme Court decision saying that Ohio’s method is constitutional,” LaRose says. “That doesn’t mean it’s optimal, right? So let’s work on making it better and that starts with a conversation at the state legislature where we make the laws.”
Of course, with Republicans in control of the state legislature, it’s perhaps easier for LaRose than for Clyde to entrust changes to lawmakers. What’s more, secretaries going back to the 1990s have continually re-instated Ohio’s system for removing voters from the rolls, known as “The Supplemental Process,” through directives, without turning to lawmakers.
Still, LaRose often strikes a bipartisan tone, emphasizing his work on across the aisle on redistricting. He says he caught a lot of flak from fellow Republicans when he signed onto a reform measure in his first year in the Ohio Senate.
“My response, inevitably, was some version of, listen this is not, for me anyway, what’s best for one party or another,” LaRose says. “It’s about making our democracy function right.”
In addition to their records, both candidates tout their latest legislative proposals to improve election security. LaRose would create a cybersecurity task force within the Ohio National Guard to help identify vulnerabilities in the election system. Clyde is pushing a more extensive re-tooling, with paper ballots, post-election audits and a new cybersecurity director in the secretary’s office.
“He or she would be advised by a bipartisan council of security experts and voter advocates,” Clyde describes. “So I think that is a comprehensive plan to address the threats we face in our election system.”
Asher sees both as competent, impressive candidates, and says they’re backing ideas that cross party lines, like protecting and encouraging voting. Asher also notes the office could give the eventual secretary the name recognition to run for higher office.
He points to politicians like Republican Bob Taft and Democrat Sherrod Brown, both former secretaries who went on to serve as governor and U.S. senator, respectively. Husted, who's currently in the position but term-limited, is running for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket.