Before Limiting Ballot Drop Boxes to One Per County, Top Ohio Election Officials Secretly Consulted Promoter of Debunked Voting Fraud Fears

After Black union workers petitioned the state for more secure ballot drop boxes, top election officials called Hans von Spakovsky, a leading purveyor of discredited voting fraud claims, and then put a strict limit on the boxes instead.
Ohio voters drop off their ballots at the Board of Elections in Dayton, Ohio on April 28, 2020. - On March 17, 2020 Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton delayed Ohio primaries over co... Ohio voters drop off their ballots at the Board of Elections in Dayton, Ohio on April 28, 2020. - On March 17, 2020 Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton delayed Ohio primaries over coronavirus concerns. The primaries were changed exclusively to a vote-by-mail system to reduce chances of virus spread. (Photo by Megan JELINGER / AFP) (Photo by MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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September 24, 2020 9:14 a.m.

This story first appeared at ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

On July 15, a civil rights group formed by Black union workers called on the Ohio secretary of state to make voting amid the pandemic easier and safer. It advocated placing multiple secure ballot drop boxes in counties across the state.

When a deputy to Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose received the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s press release, he responded quickly — but not to the group. Instead, according to records obtained by ProPublica, the deputy contacted the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, a leading advocate for the discredited argument that American elections are tainted by widespread voting fraud.

“I just left a voicemail at your office, but wanted to follow up via email as well,” wrote Grant Shaffer, the deputy assistant secretary of state. “If you have a few minutes, I’d love to discuss the attached press release.”

That was the second email Shaffer sent von Spakovsky’s office that day. Earlier, he had RSVP’d to an Aug. 4 virtual briefing hosted by the conservative activist. Secretaries of state are responsible for overseeing elections, and during the pandemic von Spakovsky has organized at least two remote, off-the-record strategy sessions exclusively for Republican secretaries and their staffs to discuss voting security amid what will be one of the most contested and unusual elections in generations, ProPublica reported last week.

“I’ll be happy to attend this briefing,” Shaffer wrote to von Spakovsky’s assistant. “The Secretary can attend for part of the time, and our scheduler will be following up with you shortly on that topic. Is there anything we can help out with or be prepared to present?”

It is not known what Shaffer and von Spakovsky specifically said over the phone about the drop box request, or if the call took place. But on Aug. 12, a week after the virtual briefing, and a month after Shaffer sought von Spakovksy’s counsel, LaRose issued a directive prohibiting each of Ohio’s 88 counties from installing more than one drop box within its borders.

The secretary’s office, meanwhile, never responded to the A. Philip Randolph Institute, according to the group’s lawyer, David Carey, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. He said he was “baffled” that LaRose’s deputy would reach out to von Spakovsky and not his client. “If the secretary is turning the voting systems in Ohio into a partisan endeavor, that is a matter of extremely grave concern,” he said.

LaRose’s office declined to comment, citing pending litigation about the decision. Von Spakovsky and Heritage did not respond to requests for comment.

While he hasn’t publicly opined on secure ballot boxes, von Spakovsky has repeatedlyargued that everyone besides the elderly and those with health risks should not vote absentee in any form and only vote at their polling place.

Secretaries of state have wide latitude to act in ways that can make it easier or harder to vote. While most are partisan elected officials, they are expected to carry out policies that aren’t more harmful to one party than the other.

In keeping with the national trend, a record number of Ohio’s nearly 8 million registered voters are expected to cast absentee ballots in November to avoid spreading the coronavirus at the polls. Placing a ballot in a secure drop box would give voters an alternative to both voting in person and to mailing in a ballot, especially for those worried about the tumult within the U.S. Postal Service.

Evidence suggests that Democrats are more likely to vote remotely than Republicans, and any actions limiting voting by mail could suppress turnout and hurt the party’s chances of taking the White House. Ohio is a crucial battleground state, and Cuyahoga County alone accounts for nearly a million voters spread across more than 1,200 square miles and includes the Democratic stronghold of Cleveland.

Despite the behind-the-scenes communication with von Spakovsky, the secretary appeared publicly open to the idea of adding more drop boxes, asking the state attorney general in late July for legal guidance on whether Ohio law allows for “one or more additional secure receptacles” per county.

But on Aug. 11, before the attorney general weighed in, LaRose withdrew his request and the following day issued his one-box-per-county directive.

Two weeks later, Ohio Democrats sued LaRose in state court in Columbus. In a 31-page ruling issued on Sept. 15, Judge Richard Frye found that prohibiting county election officials from adding extra drop boxes in their districts “was unreasonable and unlawful.”

COLUMBUS, OH – NOVEMBER 06: Republican candidate Frank LaRose gives his victory speech after winning Ohio Secretary of State on November 6, 2018 at the Ohio Republican Party’s election night party at the Sheraton Capitol Square in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

“Treating voters differently without regard to obvious factors like the population and geographic size of their county is arbitrary,” he wrote.

Frye’s ruling has been stayed pending an appeal by LaRose, who is arguing the court exceeded its authority when it struck down his one-box-per-county directive. The A. Philip Randolph Institute and other voting rights groups filed a separate lawsuit over the constitutionality of LaRose’s directive late last month in federal court. The Trump campaign has intervened in that case, which is ongoing and is part of a larger effort it is carrying out over voter rules in at least a dozen lawsuits across the country.

The Ohio attorney general declined to provide a comment for this story, also citing litigation, and denied a ProPublica records request asking for the guidance the office was preparing for LaRose on the grounds that it was subject to “attorney-client privilege and/or work-product doctrines.”

Von Spakovsky, whose arguments that voting fraud is widespread have been largely debunked, began hosting secret, Republican-only meetings for state election administrators after Trump was elected, records obtained by ProPublica show. At the Aug. 4 virtual meeting, a Department of Homeland Security official was falsely introduced to attendees as their “liaison to the election community.”

Shaffer and another official from the Ohio secretary of state’s office also attended a von Spakovsky meeting in 2019, where the then-head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division appeared on a panel with the conservative lawyer, an action the former division chief under President Barack Obama called “unprecedented.”

Republicans consider von Spakovsky the leading expert on voter fraud, but his work is not peer reviewed and two years ago a judge found that his testimony on the topic was “premised on several misleading and unsupported examples” and included “false assertions.”

Do you have access to information that should be public about efforts by outside groups seeking to influence how election officials will administer the vote on Nov. 3? Email Mike Spies at michael.spies@propublica.org or Jake Pearson at jake.pearson@propublica.org. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

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