MARION, Ohio (WCMH) — Two Marion County men are accused of illegally distributing marked sample ballots.
Republican candidate for Marion City Auditor Robert Landon and former Marion County Republican Party chairman John Matthews are accused of distributing sample ballots. Landon is also accused of distributing material which purports to be a communication from the Board of Elections.
According to court records, the investigation started after the Marion City Law Director was contacted by an anonymous source who had some election materials dropped off at their house. The material was reported to be a piece of paper that appeared to be a sample ballot printed off from the Marion County Board of Elections website with the names of candidates circled.
According to the report:
In addition to the printed materials, they were also given what for the purpose of this report has been referred to as “sample ballots” by the Republican Headquarters. Mr. Saad specifically advised that it was John Matthews who gave them to him. When the door to door drive began, materials were dispersed amongst those involved. Of the people doing the door to door, the only person I am aware of to hand out the sample ballots was Robert Landon and I was advised that this was only done when he ran out of the other materials.
“This sample ballot was produced by the Marion County Board of Elections web site” is printed at the top of the piece of paper which led me to believe that this was created by someone simply going to the Board of Elections website, pulling up a sample ballot, printing it off and then circling and highlighting names.
The ballots were given to several Republican candidates by Matthews according to the police report. Police could only find evidence of the ballots being distributed by Landon.
It is illegal for a political party or candidate to distribute sample ballots or cause their title or name to be printed on sample ballots.
“We wish it wouldn’t have occurred, but it did and we have no choice but to go forward with prosecution,” Marion County Law Director Mark Russell said.
The Ohio Secretary of State’s office advised police that there can be issues prosecuting that section of the law.
According to the police report:
On 11/04/19, I contacted Andrew King, Chief Legal Counsel with the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office. He was familiar with this as he was contacted by the Marion County Board of Elections. He explained that at the state level and BOE, there is nothing for them to follow up with. He explained that ultimately, this would fall on the Law Director for the City of Marion to make a determination if he or she wanted to pursue this in court. I asked him pointedly if there is a legal violation and gave him the section numbers that were given to me.
King told me that there are issues with these sections of law as far as prosecution goes. He explained that the sample ballot that is posted online is a public document and as such, there are first amendment protections in place allowing for the distribution of public documents by an individual or group. In addition, this section states that “nor shall a political party or candidate cause their title or name to be imprinted on sample ballots” which would included the disclaimer on the bottom of the paper stating that this was paid for by the Marion County Republican Party. On the other hand, there is another contradictory section of the ORC that states it is illegal to not put this type of statement on the bottom of any paperwork that is handed out. King advised that if the Law Director had any questions, he was more than willing to assist.
After being questioned about the sample ballots, the report indicates that some Republican candidates pointed out that Democrats were also handing out sample ballots. The only evidence of this that police found was a custom-designed card featuring a picture of the Democratic candidates on one side and a list of candidates on the back. It was not a printout from the Board of Elections.
This case is not Matthews’ first time facing criminal charges. In 2017, Matthews pleaded guilty to theft in office after it was discovered that he used his personal phone to make calls and send texts of a political nature during work hours at the Industrial Commission of Ohio. He was sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to pay $4,062 in restitution.