A Shaker Heights attorney accused of illegally voting in the last two general elections should be acquitted, in part, because he cast ballots in two states by accident, his attorney argued to a judge.
James Saunders, a 56-year-old former lawyer for the Internal Revenue Service, did not mean to commit a crime when he cast ballots in both Cuyahoga County and Broward County, Florida, counties where he owns property and has been registered to vote since before 2009, his lawyer said during closing arguments Wednesday.
Scott Roger Hurley, an assistant public defender, asked Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Andrew Santoli to “come to a just result here that acknowledges that, yes, mistakes do happen, accidents do happen” and find Saunders not guilty of two felony counts of voter fraud.
Andrew Rogalski, an assistant county prosecutor, said the argument would have been more credible if Saunders had done it just once.
“The fact that you do that in consecutive general elections I think takes ‘accident’ to the land of imaginary doubt, and not reasonable doubt,” Rogalski said.
Santoli, whom Saunders chose to render a verdict in place of a jury, said he will announce his decision at an Aug. 8 hearing.
The comments came at the close of the trial that began Wednesday morning and featured testimony from just three witnesses — elections officials from Cuyahoga County and Broward County, Florida, and an Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent who examined the case.
Saunders did not take the stand or present any witnesses.
The witnesses testified collectively that Saunders voted in person at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on Oct. 21, 2020, and requested an absentee ballot be delivered to an address he used in rural Virginia. The Broward County elections official said that an absentee ballot was not delivered.
Cellphone tower date placed Saunders’ cellphone at his Virginia address on Nov. 1, 2020, then showed that he drove down to Broward County on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020, and cast his ballot in-person there.
Before the 2022 general election, Saunders voted by mail in Florida on Nov. 2, 2022, and then voted in person at his precinct in Shaker Heights on Nov. 8, 2022, the witnesses said.
Saunders’ name was among several in Northeast Ohio that Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office submitted to Attorney General Dave Yost’s office for prosecution. He is the only person to have been charged in Cuyahoga County.
Federal Elections Commission filings showed that Saunders had made monthly donations to then-President Donald Trump’s re-election campaigns and various other conservative political groups in the run-up to that election. Prior to the November 2022 election, Saunders donated to groups that supported GOP congressional candidates in an effort to capture a majority in the U.S. House and Senate.
Hurley argued during the trial that prosecutors charged Saunders in the wrong place for his votes in the November 2020 election. He pointed out that, when Saunders voted early in Cuyahoga County in October, he did not break the law. The illegal act didn’t come until he cast his ballot in-person in Florida on Election Day, so prosecutors in Ohio had no jurisdiction over that vote, Hurley argued.
Hurley also argued that, because privacy laws shield voters’ ballots from disclosure even in the face of a court order, it’s impossible for the state to determine whether Saunders actually voted twice for the candidate, or if he only cast votes for specific, local issues in one or both of the elections.
“That would not be voting ‘at the same election,’” Hurley said. “That leaves us with a blind spot.”
Rogalski said that prosecutors aren’t required to prove that Saunders voted for the same candidate or issue twice — just that he cast two ballots.
“We don’t know who he voted for, and we shouldn’t know who he voted for,” Rogalski said. “The act of casting a ballot, even if you leave it blank, is what’s counted as a vote in Broward County and Cuyahoga County.”