Candidates for secretary of state rarely receive the attention of those running further up the ticket. But the office determines practices for fair and secure elections, which “underpins every issue that is important to voters,” said Kathleen Clyde, a state representative and the Democratic nominee for secretary of state in Ohio.
Voters, she said in an interview with Rewire.News, “hear more about those top-of-the-ticket races and don’t necessarily know how important these down-ballot races are.” In Ohio, where Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has used his role to restrict the vote, it’s easy to see the influence the next secretary of state may have.
Redistricting is at the forefront of the issues Ohio’s secretary of state candidates will face, Clyde said. “The secretary of state is one of three statewide officeholders that sits on the state redistricting commission that will redraw the lines after the next census,” she explained, “and this election will set up who is in place for that critical process.” Speaking of its legislative maps, Clyde said the state “currently [has] the most rigged map in Ohio history”—something she’d like to see change if she’s elected this November.
Ohio “Republicans designed the state’s redistricting map to keep their party in office in violation of voters’ constitutional rights,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Ahead of the 2010 Census, national Republicans identified the state as a key battleground ripe for redistricting and pumped nearly $1 million into its state legislative races. The GOP that year secured control of Ohio’s legislature and “quickly got to work on drawing a map that would deliver favorable results for the next ten years,” Alora Thomas-Lundborg, a staff attorney with the ACLU, explained in a blog post. That’s why the ACLU filed a lawsuit in late May alleging the state’s districts reflect partisan gerrymandering and are therefore unconstitutional, seeking to have the maps replaced ahead of the 2020 elections.
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As Thomas-Lundborg explained, voters in the United States are typically sorted into districts every ten years “based on the results of the U.S. Census” and “under current Ohio law, the state’s General Assembly—its legislature—is primarily responsible for drawing the state’s congressional districts, under the advisement of a bipartisan legislative task force.”
With the next census approaching, who gets to sit on that task force—which has a seat for the secretary of state—is of critical importance, Clyde said. “Ohio has suffered from some of the most gerrymandered legislative districts in the country, and this partisan gerrymandering has to stop,” she said. “We have the opportunity to win this seat with somebody who is prioritizing fair districts for our state. That isn’t the case in every election. It’s not always an election that sets up who is drawing the lines.”
Addressing gerrymandering may not seem like an election issue that could drive voters to the polls, but it’s a subject delicately intertwined with the pressing issues driving today’s political climate, such as reproductive rights.
Clyde has the backing of several pro-choice groups in her race, including EMILY’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, and Planned Parenthood Votes Ohio. She told Rewire.News that she’s been “a consistent and strong supporter of women’s ability to make their own reproductive health care decisions.” That’s important, she said, because “that has unfortunately been under attack in Ohio.”
Ohio’s anti-choice state legislators have in recent years worked with Gov. John Kasich (R) to chip away at abortion rights and access to reproductive health care. At least 19 abortion restrictions have been passed by the GOP-majority legislature and signed into law since Kasich entered office in 2011. Those include a 20-week abortion ban, a measure to defund Planned Parenthood, and a budget bill in 2013 that helped close down abortion clinics in the state.
Ohio’s General Assembly last year passed an extreme “heartbeat” bill through both of its chambers, which would have criminalized abortion when a heartbeat is detectable in a fetus—before many people know they are pregnant. Kasich vetoed the measure, but some GOP state lawmakers haven’t given up on efforts to pass it.
“Part of the reason that [reproductive rights have] been under attack has to do with the polarization brought on by a redistricting process that rigs our maps so that middle-of-the-road people are not being elected to office in Ohio, which means [we have] a lot of extreme legislation, extreme legislators—and the right for women to make their own reproductive health care decisions has been attacked over and over,” Clyde said.
“Reproductive rights [are] definitely an issue tied to gerrymandering,” she said. “If we are able to get leaders in place who are committed to fair districts … we will be able to draw a fair map and, I believe, see an end to these constant attacks on women’s reproductive health care.”
Clyde’s opponent in the race for secretary of state, state Sen. Frank LaRose, has co-sponsored legislation restricting reproductive rights such as a 2015 measure to defund Planned Parenthood and voted in favor of the “heartbeat” bill last year. His campaign site touts what it says is a “100 percent pro-life voting record” and a promise that he “will always fight to protect the life of the unborn.”
LaRose’s site notes an endorsement he received from Ohio Right to Life PAC. Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, said in an interview with Rewire.News that the organization has had “a long-term relationship with [LaRose] as a state senator where he supported our legislation as well as sponsored our down syndrome ban bill,” referring to a measure introduced by the Republican and passed late last year.
“When he announced that he was looking to pursue higher office, in this case secretary of state, we were excited because we know his core pro-life beliefs,” Gonidakis said. “It’s always important to have good pro-life people in higher office.”
Gonidakis said the race for secretary of state was one that should “absolutely” matter to voters who oppose abortion rights “because the secretary of state controls elections in our state whether they be at the local level or the state level.” He added that “what we don’t want is a liberal secretary of state who changes the rules on election day to favor one party” over the other. “We’re very concerned that we could lose pro-life seats if a pro-choice secretary of state was in office and extended voting hours for no reason whatsoever.”
LaRose and his campaign didn’t return requests for comment from Rewire.News about how he could use his seat to enact anti-choice policies. The state’s current secretary of state may provide insight into the matter. From his seat on the state’s Ballot Board as secretary of state, Husted in 2012 voted in favor of allowing a so-called personhood amendment to be added to the state’s constitution to move forward, allowing an anti-choice group to gather signatures so it could be considered as a ballot measure. The process was approved by a 3-2 vote along party lines, according to the Columbus Dispatch, though it ultimately failed.
Like Clyde, LaRose has noted the importance of addressing partisan gerrymandering in the state while on the campaign trail and he has touted his efforts to address the problem. Bipartisan legislation cosponsored this year by LaRose was passed, and voters approved it in a May ballot proposal.
According to Common Cause, the effort “incentivizes passage of a congressional map with bipartisan support and enhances transparency and public participation. If a bipartisan map is not possible, a set of strict rules are applied including a prohibition on drawing a congressional map to unduly (dis)favor a political party or its incumbents.”
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained in a piece diving into why Republicans would “sign on to a deal that could limit its power to gerrymander in the future,” the state GOP saw “it mostly as a way to preserve that status quo—fearing that if they didn’t cut a deal here, a more radical measure could have gained support and passed through a separate ballot initiative.”
“Under [the plan], the legislature would have to try to come up with a new map supported by a big bipartisan majority. If they fail, however, a one-party map could still pass — but it would now expire after four years, rather than the current ten,” Prokop wrote.
A 2015 ballot measure was approved by Ohio voters to reform redistricting efforts in the state.
Still, despite the bipartisan effort to reform redistricting in the state, there are key differences between Clyde and LaRose when it comes to voting rights and policy. “He voted for the most gerrymandered congressional map in Ohio history,” Clyde said, pointing to his 2011 vote for the state’s new congressional map. “I voted against it and was outspoken against it. He said he will continue the purging of voters,” Clyde added.
Clyde has long advocated against Ohio’s voter purges, which were ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June though civil and voting rights advocates say low-income people and communities of color were disproportionately affected by the process. She told Rewire.News in 2016 that it was an example of “aggressive attacks” on voting rights in the state.
Clyde would “stop the purging of infrequent voters on day one,” she said. LaRose has said he would continue the practice.
“That case found that Ohio could continue to do this purging, but it’s not required to,” Clyde continued. “I will end that type of purging and I’ll work to implement automatic voter registration because in the end, it’s about ensuring that every Ohioan’s voice is heard and that their vote is counted.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Frank LaRose introduced a redistricting bill in the Ohio legislature. LaRose cosponsored it.