COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s campaigning for Issue 1 has been challenged under a federal law prohibiting such political activity for certain government employees.
The Libertarian Party of Ohio filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, claiming that LaRose’s ardent, public support of Issue 1 – the statewide initiative to make it more difficult for citizens to amend the constitution – violates the federal Hatch Act.
The Hatch Act prohibits most government employees whose programs or offices receive federal funding from performing certain political speech and activity while in office. As the state’s top election official, LaRose oversees the administration of federal funding to run elections.
In its complaint, filed Monday, the Libertarian Party of Ohio claims that LaRose’s campaigning for Issue 1 amounts to using “official authority or influence to interfere with or affect the results of an election or nomination.”
Weeks before Ohio’s August special election, LaRose announced he would run for U.S. Senate in 2024. Mixed among messages reminding voters of deadlines and early voting times, LaRose’s Twitter teems with photos and videos of him at pro-Issue 1 campaign events, advocating for Issue 1 in forums and debates and assuring Ohioans of the type of senator he’d be, should they elect him.
“It’s clear that LaRose’s use of federal funds for elections and his support of Issue 1 place him in direct violation of the Hatch Act,” Mark Brown, an attorney who filed the complaint, said in a press release. “By supporting Issue 1 as Ohio’s Secretary of State, his official actions will affect the result of an Ohio election and are not protected by the First Amendment.”
The Office of Special Counsel confirmed it received a complaint against LaRose. Complaints are otherwise confidential. If the office finds a complaint is substantiated, it will forward it to the relevant state or federal agency to fully investigate.
A spokesperson for LaRose’s Senate campaign said the complaint is a “cheap publicity stunt” by his political opponents.
“They know he’s making great progress in convincing Ohioans to vote yes on Issue 1, and they’re trying to intimidate him,” the spokesperson said. “Frank isn’t one to back down from a fight.”
Not all government employees are covered under the Hatch Act. For example, governors, lieutenant governors and mayors are not required to limit their political speech while in office, nor are school employees or those working for publicly financed research institutions.
Not all political speech by government employees is covered, either. Among other things, government employees are allowed to express opinions about candidates and issues, donate to political causes, attend and speak at political rallies, and make campaign speeches for candidates in partisan elections.
However, the Office of Special Counsel emphasizes that employees who engage in such political speech must do so in their personal, not professional, capacity.
“For example, they should not identify their official title when engaging in any of these activities,” the Office of Special Counsel’s Hatch Act information page states.
The Libertarian Party of Ohio claims that LaRose campaigning for Issue 1 boosts his own campaign for the U.S. Senate.
“For someone who is using Issue 1 to campaign for federal office, LaRose should probably be more familiar with federal laws while administering federal funds,” said Travis Irvine, the Libertarian Party of Ohio’s communications director and 2018 gubernatorial candidate.
If passed, Issue 1 would require all future citizen-initiated amendments to win at least 60% of the vote to pass instead of the simple majority currently needed.
To get an initiative on the ballot, groups would have to collect signatures from 5% of registered voters in all 88 Ohio counties, an increase from the current 44-county requirement. An existing 10-day curing period for groups who did not gather enough valid signatures would be eliminated.
LaRose has supported Issue 1 since it was being considered by the state legislature. In NBC4’s Issue 1 debate, he asserted that the amendment would protect Ohio’s constitution from out-of-state special interests and assure wide-reaching bipartisan support for any future constitutional amendment.
He also previously told voters that Issue 1 is “100% about abortion” and other possible topics of future amendments, including gun control and minimum wage.