COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — As John Adams watched the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, in which finalized tallies, audits and investigations confirmed Joe Biden’s wins in key states, he still felt there were “shenanigans.”

“It was clearly not legitimate,” he told NBC4 in a recent phone interview. “You can say stolen; I really don’t care how you phrase it.”

Adams, a former state lawmaker, is acting on that debunked belief. In the May 3 primary election, he’s running for Secretary of State — Ohio’s top election official — trying to defeat Republican incumbent Frank LaRose for a once-overlooked position that now holds unique weight as disproven voting fraud claims persist after Donald Trump’s presidency.

A small business owner from Sidney and a former Navy SEAL, Adams, 62, served in the Ohio House from 2007 to 2014. His core view that “the election was stolen” from Trump, however, stands before a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

Republican Secretary of State candidate John Adams speaks to members of the Worthington Area Republican Club at J&D’s Place in Worthington, Ohio, on March 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth)

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency said after the election, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Adams dismisses that: “I don’t care what department it comes from,” he said, because “voters don’t trust their election process currently.”

The Trump campaign and its allies, however, lost more than 60 lawsuits contesting election processes, including in swing states Adams singled out like Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin. But to those court failures, he said plaintiffs “were never able to present the evidence.”

To voting experts, Adams’ candidacy points to a coordinated effort nationwide to undermine elections, as people falsely believing the 2020 election was stolen are running for office themselves.

“In two out of three races for governor and secretary of state across the country right now, there’s an Election Denier running,” Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action, told NBC4 in a statement.

Her nonpartisan watchdog group is tracking 2020 election deniers running in 2022. Adams is one of 23 secretary of state candidates in 19 states who have denied Biden’s victory, States United Action found.

Overseeing elections is the Ohio Secretary of State’s most notable duty, along with registering businesses and other functions. He or she supervises election laws, investigates fraud, reviews statewide petitions, appoints county board members, cavasses votes, trains election officials and polices campaign finance.

“(Secretaries of state) make sure our votes are counted and the will of the American people is respected,” Lydgate said. “People who don’t believe in our elections shouldn’t be in charge of them.”

How Adams would run Ohio’s elections

Primary challenges for Secretary of State, especially against incumbents, are rare.

LaRose, 42, and former state Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent) ran unopposed in 2018 for an open seat, and the last party to have a contested Secretary of State primary was the Republicans in 2010. Then, however, a Democrat was the incumbent.

The last time Ohio’s incumbent elections chief faced a primary challenge was 1948, when Republican Secretary of State Edward Hummel fended off Ted Brown.

Adams wants to “tighten our election laws,” he said. That includes eliminating early voting (all three to four weeks of it); requiring a reason for absentee ballots (like hospitalization or being out of town); getting rid of ballot drop boxes; and requiring a specific, state-issued ID for voting.

Ohioans can currently prove their identity with one of six documents.

Adams also wants an in-person canvass of Ohio’s registered voters — about 8 million people — to fully clear dead people and former residents off the voter rolls, which he acknowledged would be “time-consuming and expensive.”

“Who’s actually living there? Who’s actually voting in those locations?” he said.

These proposals contrast with what LaRose said contributed to “the most successful election in our state’s history” in a recent interview with NBC4’s Colleen Marshall. He mentioned a record number of ballots cast in 2020, record absentee votes, and record early votes.

“It’s unfortunate that politicians on the right claim that there’s widespread voter fraud when, in fact, there’s not,” LaRose said. “It’s also unfortunate that politicians on the left claim widespread voter suppression when, in fact, that’s not true, either. The bottom line is this: We make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.”

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks to the Fairfield County Lincoln Republican Club in Pickerington, Ohio, on March 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Along with failed court efforts to overturn the last presidential election, Trump pressured Georgia’s secretary of state in a January 2021 phone call to “find 11,780 votes” that would give him the victory.

When asked what he would do if Trump lost Ohio in 2024 and urged him to intervene as secretary of state, Adams said: “I have two years to put into place election processes that I think will prevent and help that we don’t have to go down that road.”

Trump won Ohio in 2016 and 2020 by more than 8 percentage points in each election.

Adams’ latest claim; Voting fraud rare

Adams cited multiple disproven claims from the 2020 election while speaking to NBC4, but the latest relevant allegation he mentioned and has promoted on social media is ballot trafficking.

Pushed by conservative political commentators like Charlie Kirk, Dinesh D’Souza, and The Gateway Pundit, a group called True The Vote claims cellphone tracking data they collected shows a ring of people nefariously dropping off mail-in ballots in five key states Biden won.

That includes 138 people, they claim, shuttling ballots in Wisconsin, where Biden beat Trump by 20,682 votes.

But despite True The Vote alleging these people were improperly collecting, distributing, and submitting absentee ballots, the group’s founder told Wisconsin lawmakers last month that “we’re not suggesting that the ballots that were cast were illegal ballots.”

True The Vote also declined to make its data available to lawmakers, so the research could not be independently verified.

“Data allegedly showing cell phones that were tracked multiple times near absentee ballot drop boxes is, alone, not evidence of a crime,” the Wisconsin Elections Commission said in a statement.

A campaign sign stands outside JD’s Place in Worthington, Ohio, where Republican Secretary of State candidate John Adams spoke to members of the Worthington Area Republican Club on March 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth)

Systematic voting fraud of all forms has consistently been found to be rare.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, tracks election fraud in every state. But the group lists only 1,353 “proven instances” since 2000 out of hundreds of millions of votes cast. LaRose’s office found just 27 Ohio ballots that were potentially cast illegally in the 2020 general election, just 0.0005% of nearly 6 million cast statewide.

“Ohioans knew it was honest,” LaRose said of the 2020 election. “And whether your favorite candidate won or lost, you could look at that and say Ohio just had an honest election.”

Adams said he believes LaRose is not searching hard enough for fraud and that he would levy stiffer penalties if elected.

“People need to go to jail,” he said. “When people start going to jail, this stuff will stop.”

At least 53 people, however, have been criminally convicted of election fraud in Ohio since 2000, per the Heritage Foundation. One of those convictions happened under LaRose, in which a Delaware County man pleaded to three days in jail and a fine for illegally submitting an absentee ballot on behalf of his dead father.

What are Adams’ chances?

There has been no independent polling of the secretary of state race, but name recognition and campaign donations heavily favor LaRose, one of the most visible state officials this year as Ohio slogs through redistricting.

The first campaign finance reports for 2022 aren’t due until Thursday, but records show LaRose outraised Adams $887,000 to $55,000 last year, a 16-to-1 margin.

The Ohio Republican Party has also endorsed LaRose over Adams. Both candidates supported Trump in the 2020 election.

More than 6 in 10 likely Ohio GOP primary voters say a Trump endorsement would make them more likely to vote for that candidate, per a February Emerson College poll commissioned by NBC4.

A third Republican secretary of state candidate, podcaster Terpsichore Maras, who has also alleged the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, did not get enough signatures to appear on the ballot, so it will be just Adams and LaRose on GOP tickets.

On the Democratic side, Cincinnati-area businesswoman Chelsea Clark is running unopposed to face the Republican winner in November. Clark has been a city councilor in Forest Park (pop. 19,000) since 2017.

Her policy proposals include automatic voter registration, expanding early voting, allowing voter registration online, and stopping voter roll purges.