Home Part of States Newsroom
News
Ohio’s leaders blocked (some) foreign money from issue campaigns. Advocates call it a dog-whistle

Share

Ohio’s leaders blocked (some) foreign money from issue campaigns. Advocates call it a dog-whistle

Jun 11, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Marty Schladen
Share
Ohio’s leaders blocked (some) foreign money from issue campaigns. Advocates call it a dog-whistle
Description
Ohio Secretary of State Frank Larose mingles before the 2024 State of the State address in the Ohio House chambers at the Ohio Statehouse. (Pool photo by Barbara J. Perenic, Columbus Dispatch.)

Ohio’s Republican leadership last month refused to put Joe Biden on the presidential ballot unless the legislature adopted another measure that they claimed would protect against foreign money playing a role in the process by which citizens can initiate laws.

But while some surely were concerned about malign foreigners improperly influencing state policy, some of them seemed to be playing on the same trumped-up fear of foreigners that they do in other contexts.

When earlier problems arose with putting presidential candidates of both parties on the ballot, the legislature passed a “clean” bill fixing the problem as a routine matter.

Moreover, with this latest law, Ohio lawmakers did nothing to bring transparency to dark money, which is flooding the state and can come from any source. It can be from foreigners, organized crime or interested parties — all unbeknownst to the electorate whose laws are being impacted. Such dark money played an indispensable role in the largest bribery scandal in Ohio — a scandal in which many of those same Ohio leaders played a part.

In addition, critics said the move was really intended to make it more difficult for citizens to impose popular measures that the state’s gerrymandered supermajority opposes, such as protecting abortion rights and ending gerrymandering. As part of that, they said, it gives the state attorney general — who since 2011 has been a Republican — greatly enhanced powers to harass citizen-led attempts to change the law.

Xenophobia

Advocates for immigrants and others say that in pushing their “ban” on foreign money, some Republican leaders are playing on the anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant paranoia that Donald Trump has relentlessly whipped up since announcing his candidacy to be president in 2015.

The new legislation not only bans contributions from foreign nationals, it also bans them from lawful permanent residents, or “green card” holders. That’s despite the fact that federal law allows such people to make contributions, and Bill Seitz, an attorney and a Republican member of the Ohio House, warned his colleagues that the prohibition could sink the entire measure in court.

To an immigrant advocate, the dog whistle was easily audible.

“They know what they’re doing, the people who are sponsoring these amendments,” said Lynn Tramonte, director of the Ohio Immigrant Alliance. “They’re making this about people who were born in other countries and adding on new categories of immigrants to be banned from donating money. The legislator who introduced that amendment knows that that makes it open to legal challenge. That was very clear. Both sides — Republicans and Democrats — expect that law to be challenged in court. So it was clearly not about the policy. It was about getting those headlines.”

Some of the amendment’s staunchest supporters haven’t been shy about using such tactics.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose was the first to flag the fact that the Democratic National Convention was too late to get Biden on the ballot under Ohio law. But instead of calling for a clean bill that would only fix that as the legislature had done in the past, LaRose had other demands.

“Ohioans deserve confidence in the integrity of our elections, knowing that they aren’t being bought by foreign bullies or billionaires,” LaRose said in a May press release. “I hope the House does the right thing and takes action soon to close this loophole before it’s exploited again.”

Other motives

LaRose was referring to a Swiss billionaire who had made big contributions to the Tides Foundation, a U.S. group that helped finance Ohio voter efforts last year. 

One trounced an August attempt by LaRose and his allies to make it nearly impossible for citizens to initiate amendments to the Ohio Constitution. Then, in November, voters passed an amendment protecting abortion rights by a 14-point margin. LaRose had earlier told an audience of partisans that the August effort was 100% about stopping the abortion-rights measure in November.

It’s not the only time LaRose, the state’s top elections official, has pressed a fear of foreigners into the service of what appear to be ulterior motives. 

For example, he’s conducted frequent voter purges, supposedly in the service of election integrity. Last year, he tried to make a splash by announcing that he had referred 641 cases of possible voter fraud to authorities.

Sounds like a lot, but that’s only 0.0044% of the total votes cast. And when the Capital Journal did a follow-up investigation, less than 3% of those resulted in charges.

In other words, just 0.000132% of the total number of votes cast since LaRose took office in 2019 might end in convictions. Yet LaRose last month announced yet another voter purge, claiming the threat of foreigners casting illegal ballots was why it was needed.

“Ohioans overwhelmingly passed an amendment to our state Constitution which makes it clear that only U.S. citizens can vote in our elections,” LaRose said in a May 14 press release. “It is my duty under the law to uphold the Constitution, and the legislature has explicitly tasked me with ensuring that only eligible citizens can register and vote.”

Spreading fear

Elizabeth Neumann was deputy chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration. 

During a virtual press conference sponsored by the National Immigration Forum last week, she described how the “great replacement theory” — the idea that there’s a plot to replace white people, especially in positions of power — has led to numerous racist massacres. She said that whipping up fears of illegal voting is a softer version of the same theory that shooters invoked as they massacred people in Christchurch, New Zealand, a Walmart in El Paso, a Pittsburgh synagogue, and a Buffalo grocery store.

“There’s a lot of conversation about how migrants are actually voting and this goes into that softer great-replacement theory and we anticipate that will continue to be a challenge this election year,” said Neumann, who is now chief strategy officer for Moonshot, which works to end online harms such as violent extremism and child trafficking.

Tramonte, of the immigrant alliance, said the real aim of claims of illegal voting and purges and prosecutions is to scare marginal populations away from the polls. She said she helped conduct a focus group before last November’s election.

“I heard from people who were citizens who said they were afraid to vote because they were afraid of being attacked,” she said. “They had a plan to go early in the morning and make sure they could get their vote cast because they wanted to make sure their voices were heard, but they were afraid.”

In addition to not effectively addressing the problem of mystery money in our politics and making it harder and more frightening to participate in the process, there could be a darker consequence of the rhetoric around the bill Republicans demanded in exchange for putting a sitting president on the Ohio ballot.

In an interview, Moonshot analyst Yuri Neves said that political leaders are invoking conspiracy theories when they insinuate that green card holders have a diabolical agenda or that masses of undocumented immigrants are voting illegally. 

“It suggests some coordinated plan by nefarious actors,” he said. “Depending on who you talk to, it’s globalists, Jews, etc. When we say it’s a conspiracy theory, it’s not just demographic changes happening as there always are. It’s that it’s some malevolent actors behind it. And that’s where it gets quite dangerous.”