Last weekend, Frank LaRose helped oversee one of his first elections since he was elected Ohio Secretary of State — but it wasn’t in Ohio.
LaRose, a Republican, returned to Ohio on Tuesday after spending six days in Ukraine, the Eastern European country bordering Poland, Russia and other countries. He was part of an American delegation to an international group that observed Ukraine’s presidential election, held on Sunday, April 1.
The American delegation included former elected officials, ex-ambassadors and others, LaRose said. The Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper in the Ukrainian capital, quoted Cindy McCain, wife of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, who called the election “a step forward for Ukraine’s democracy.”
The delegation found the election, which saw TV comic Volodymyr Zelensky and President Petro Poroshenko advance to a run-off election, to be not without issues, but generally free and fair.
The election occurred against a heated political backdrop, given the 2014 uprising there that ousted a pro-Russian president and Russia’s subsequent, contested annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. A war continues in the Donbass regions, where the Ukrainian government is fighting Russian-backed separatists that has displaced tens of thousands of people.
The Russian government called Sunday’s election illegitimate and attempted to undermine trust in the results, LaRose said. But the most pro-Russian candidate placed fourth, a departure from past elections, according to the New York Times.
“The people of Ukraine have been through a lot… and as a result of that experience of having to literally fight for their freedom, they’re very serious about this process,” LaRose said in a Thursday phone interview. “And it reminds me that no one should ever take the vote for granted, that it’s truly a precious thing. And that’s something I really appreciate.”
LaRose’s trip included staying in Ivano-Frankivsk, a Western Ukraine city, and speaking to local elected officials there, meeting campaign officials, touring a prison (Ukraine allows its prisoners to vote) and observing a polling place, where elections workers hand-counted roughly 1,500-2,000 ballots until well past midnight.
LaRose said traveling to Ukraine was an honor, and an acknowledgment of Ohio’s Ukrainian-American community, which is particularly concentrated in the Cleveland area.
But he also said it served as a possible dry run for him for the 2020 election, for which election officials have been briefed to prepare for meddling efforts from Russia and other countries, similar to what the U.S. intelligence community believes occurred during the 2016 presidential election.
LaRose said there have been no accusations of the Russian government launching cyber attacks on last weekend’s election, but said they tried to influence the results in other ways, like through social media.
“It’s good for me to be able to see first-hand what’s going on there as a way to be prepared for and alert to what tactics could potentially be used here in the State of Ohio by those who would want to influence or undermine the credibility of our elections,” said LaRose, who is backing a state bill, which the Ohio Senate unanimously approved this week, meant to bolster Ohio’s elections security by creating a reserve, civilian cybersecurity force.
As for the food, LaRose said he tried borscht (beet soup), varenyky (stuffed dumplings more frequently referred to here by their Polish name, pierogi), stuffed cabbage rolls — all good. He also had a smoked fruit-juice drink he hadn’t heard of before (“It’s sort of strange to the American palate,” LaRose said.)
“If you go to the Ukrainian Village area of Parma, you would have a lot of the same stuff,” he said.
LaRose said his office hopes to plan a trip to Cleveland in the near future to give a presentation on his experiences in Ukraine.
LaRose’s trip was paid for by the International Republican Institute, a Republican-affiliated nonprofit that receives some of its funding from USAID and the U.S. State Department. The National Democratic Institute, a Democratic equivalent, also participated.