The anatomy of a smear

Trump established the playbook; he abuses the power of his office to push misinformation against his political rivals. Now Republicans are employing the same strategy to undercut a promising Congressional candidate in Ohio. 

Hillary O'Connor Mueri is running for Congress in Ohio. The district, which sits in the Northeast corner of the state, leans Republican. But Mueri is a strong candidate with an impressive resume

Mueri was born in Parma and moved to Painesville when she was 3. She graduated from Riverside High School before going to Ohio State University, completing her aviation engineering degree in 1999.

During that time, she joined the Navy via ROTC, eventually becoming a commissioned naval flight officer. She served in Iraq and flew a dozen combat missions during the Iraq War under the call sign “Toro.”

Following her return to civilian life, she received her law degree from the University of San Diego and practiced in aviation products liability as well as a pro bono side practice helping battered women.

On February 13, the Ohio Republican Party filed a complaint against Mueri with the Ohio Attorney General, alleging that Mueri voted in both the Ohio and California primaries in 2008. The Ohio Republican Party accused Mueri of committing a "felony in the fourth degree" by voting in two states in the same election. The party urged the Attorney General to prosecute Mueri, even though the alleged violations fell outside of Ohio's six-year statute of limitations. 

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, without investigating the allegations, released a statement validating the complaint, saying it was "the exact type of violation I would refer to the Attorney General for investigation — you can’t vote twice in the same election." LaRose said that "[t]he strength of our democratic republic is the sacred right of every citizen to get registered and cast a vote, and law breakers who demonstrate this level of poor judgment devalue that right when they abuse the process." 

Mueri, who moved to San Deigo in 2008 when her then-fiance was transferred there by the U.S. Navy, denied the allegations. But the local media wrote up the damaging allegations the same day without any fact-checking or independent investigation. 

That report, in turn, was pickup up by the national media, including Politico. "[V]oter fraud is a legitimate grievance. Attorney General Yost is correct to investigate these claims, and the clear evidence of voter irregularities," Townhall, a national conservative publication, wrote

There was just one problem: The allegations against Mueri were completely false. 

The truth about Mueri's voting history

In about 24 hours, the Ohio Republican Party's smear of Mueri was definitively debunked. On Friday, the election board in Lake County, where Mueri allegedly voted in 2008, released a statement saying the claim was false. "Ms. O'Conner Mueri did not vote in Lake County, Ohio at the March 4, 2008 primary," the Lake County election board said. 

The election board said it was "never asked to research the subject by any parties” until Friday, February 14. In other words, both the Ohio Republican Party and the Ohio Secretary of State pushed the claim that Mueri voted in Ohio in the 2008 primary without even asking Mueri's local election board if Mueri voted in that election. And the local and national media repeated this claim without asking the local election board. The person who finally made the inquiry was Mueri's campaign manager. 

The Ohio Republican Party relied on a document provided to them through a Freedom of Information Act request that appeared to indicate that Mueri voted absentee in the 2008 primary. But the Ohio Republican Party failed to research that, at the time, the election board "granted voter history credit to voters who applied to vote absentee, irrespective of whether the voter returned their ballot." 

The Ohio Republican Party, however, is standing by its smear. "We look forward to the results of the Attorney General’s investigation into this matter," Ohio Republican Party Executive Director Rob Secaur said in a statement. 

Sticky lies

After the truth emerged, the local media, to its credit, published an updated story. 

The national media has been slower to react. As of Monday evening, neither Politico nor Townhall have updated their stories. 

Mueri, for her part, has called for her opponent, Congressman David Joyce (R-OH), to renounce the attack. 

David Joyce and political cronies have crossed a line. I have put my life on the line to defend our way of life and the free elections we hold so dear. When I decided to continue my service and run for Congress to fight for those in Northeast Ohio that have been forgotten for so long, I knew it would be tough. What I did not expect was to be slandered and have my honor falsely questioned. On behalf of every veteran who tried to cast their vote far from home, I am calling on Congressman Joyce to condemn this slanderous report.

Thus far, Joyce has said nothing. LaRose, whose statement validated the Ohio Republican Party's complaint, has also not acknowledged the complaint is meritless. LaRose found time, however, to attack Jane Fonda for being insufficiently respectful to members of the United States military in the 1970s. But in remaining silent on Mueri's conduct, he is facilitating a smear against a military veteran. 

How the game is played

The attack against Mueri is part of a broader effort — in Ohio and across the country — to weaponize small discrepancies across millions of voters registration records to justify voter registration purges and restrictions on voting access. 

In December, LaRose referred 18 cases of alleged double voting in the 2018 primary election to the Ohio Attorney General for possible criminal prosecution. Even in the unlikely scenario that all 18 cases actually involved people who voted in elections in different states, 4.5 million ballots were cast in 2018. That would make the alleged double voting, even if true,  "roughly 0.0004 percent of the overall vote."

In September, LaRose's office was poised to purge 235,000 names from its voter rolls. Ohio has a "use it or lose it" registration system, meaning that people who don't vote for several elections are removed from the rolls. 

But a man in Ohio, Steve Tingley-Hock, "developed a hobby of spending his weekends downloading the state’s voter data onto his own laptop where he manages a database that keeps track of every voter in Ohio." 

He checked the state list against his database and found that the state's list was riddled with errors. More than 40,000 people were incorrectly labeled as inactive voters despite voting in a recent election. About half of the voters improperly marked as inactive were located "in Franklin County, a Democratic stronghold in the state."

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