Brunner discusses election, staying nonpartisan

Editorial // Published June 16, 2008 in News Herald
The News-Herald: What do you think the biggest challenge for your office is for the upcoming November election?

Brunner: I think for our office and the boards, it will be turnout. But we'll be prepared for it.
If we prepare for 80 percent turnout, then we should be very prepared for the election.
I think it should be very possible and within the realm of possibility or probability that we'll have a turnout that is at least close to 80 percent, if not hit that amount. In the 2004 election, Clark County was over 80 percent turnout.

When you have an average of 75 percent, some counties are higher and some are lower.

Would that be a record high for Ohio?

For Ohio, at least in my lifetime, I think so.

How do you balance the need for perceived voter fairness of conducting an election with the cost for change that might be necessary?

It is a balance and everyone has a different degree of importance that they place on one or the other.
However, if we're talking about our form of government, which is a democracy, which is how we elect our leaders, how we decide our issues, I think we want to ensure that we've built an infrastructure that gives us completely transparent, fair, verifiable elections.

Why should voters here in Lake County potentially switch from using the electronic voting equipment they're comfortable with to optical scan paper ballots?

This county is further ahead of other counties in terms of its use of paper ballots.  When voters come to the board of elections to vote absentee early, they vote a paper ballot, even before I had required that provisional ballots to be paper ballots they already were doing that. ... Our voting machines study showed security problems that were engineered into how the systems were built. It's not a criticism to any degree of the election officials or boards of elections as to how they conduct the elections. There are inherent problems with the design of the equipment that leave the equipment prone to tampering.  With the experts, we used both corporate and academics who are security experts who do the highest security testing for the government and industry in the country.  Their assessment was that no amount of procedures can cure the problems that are inherent in the design of the machines. My concern is if it's my job to administer elections that people can have confidence in, then it's not right for me when I know this information to not do anything about it.  It's difficult because this is something that was imposed upon the states and the counties of this country by the federal government.  Millions and over a billion dollars was spent in buying voting machine technology that wasn't adequately tested. There were no federal standards for certification. It was done privately by the National Association of State Election Directors.
So you had Congress move forward with a completely new voting system nationwide and not having the government infrastructure in place to make sure that what was required to be purchased with this federal money had the kind of integrity we need to ensure the security of our elections.

We're in a different phase of the history of our country post 9/11. I certainly don't want to be an alarmist, but if I know that potential exists, I think I have a duty to do something about it.

In 1999, Lake County was using Sequoia Voting Systems electronic voting equipment that were purchased for $2.98 million. In 2006, the county had to switch to Election Systems and Software electronic equipment because of the state's voter-verified paper trial requirement.

The county still owes $421,000 on the Sequoia equipment. Is there any possible chance of financial relief for that debt?  

I have worked day and night to try to get federal and state funding for relief for the counties for the purchase of voting equipment.  I've bugged the governor's office, I've asked for Homeland Security money, if that would work. I've bugged members of Congress, I have bugged legislators and I've been probably what people would consider to be a real pest. I'm not one to easily give up. We've even tried to go the route of the revolving loan fund, which essentially the county commissioners weren't happy with because they wanted grants instead of loans. ... So I've done everything that I possibly could to be an advocate for the boards and county commissioners and I've promised the county commissioners that even though I had the power to do that I would not decertify voting machines unless I had the money to replace them. 

I've not decertified even though I've been challenged to by the Speaker of the House.
If I could get them the money I would, and I've been trying every which way.

There has been some talk of an all-mail voting system. If that does happen in the future, even for smaller special elections, how do you address concerns of potential fraud?

We have an advantage over states like Oregon. I didn't originally see this as an advantage when it was applied, but with our voter ID laws, which are much more liberal than, for instance, Indiana, whose law was just upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Those allow boards of election officials to check those ballots against identification to ensure they were voted by the person who they were addressed to.

Can you give an example of a way to check?

A signature on the identification envelope, which has always been the hallmark of voter identification. In addition, a number of different forms, a person, they could include a copy of driver's license or bank statement or utility bill or another government document or they could supply their driver's license number, which could be checked against the driver's license records or the last four number of their Social Security number.  With the voter ID, it does give an extra layer of security if we would move to voting by mail.

Is that something you would like to see happen?

I would like to give voters of the state, county by county, the chance to decide if that's what they want the system to be.  Ohio is such as diverse state that we have to give those choices to the people of the state so that it's going to be whatever works best for a particular area of the state.
I had proposed to the legislature that we create a form of a local option, where the voters in the county could vote on whether or not they wanted to be a vote-by-mail county, but the legislature wouldn't touch that. ... I think it's perfect for Ohio because we need that kind of choice and diversity. I know of one county right now where that county would be very interested in putting that on the ballot for the voters to decide. What you find in states like Oregon in the 2004 presidential election, vote-by-mail was close to a 90 percent turnout.

The News-Herald: What are your expectations for statewide issues on the November ballot? How many do you think might get on there?

Brunner: That's a good question.

There are some new things being filed right now, where they have to go through the initial stages and have the language checked by the Attorney General and get 1,000 signatures and we check those and go forward from there.

We know for sure the issue about deadlines for actual initiative and referendum petitioning and we could have the Healthy Family Act, which is the mandatory sick leave act. We could have a referendum on payday lending. We could have a casino statewide ballot issue and then there was some language that was relating specifically to labor organizations and their ability to participate in elections through political contributions, that's at least some initial language that has been submitted.

The legislature has changed a lot of the requirements for statewide initiative and referendum petitioning, making it much more difficult for citizen initiative legislation or constitutional amendments to occur, so oftentimes these efforts start but they don't come to fruition because the legislature has made the requirements much more difficult than before.

Is that a good or bad thing?

I think the reasons that happened is because you have districts in the state that have not been fairly drawn. When you get that, you get legislators who don't feel as inclined to listen to all of their constituency.
When you have a legislature that's not competitively drawn, then you end up with a legislature that's not listening as closely to its constituents as it should. Then those constituents get dissatisfied and they start this petitioning process and the legislature's response instead of listening is to make it more difficult. ... it's not a good situation.

Legislation passed recently that allows the Inspector General to investigate former Attorney General Marc Dann's office.

What is your opinion about legislation to allow for the Inspector General to conduct investigations of the state Auditor, Treasurer and your office and to extend it permanently to the Attorney General's office?

I actually have a proposal that I've submitted to the governor for review that would create an executive inspector general that would be responsible for the same role as the inspector general, but this would be for the four executive offices that are separately elected.

My proposal would be that the executive inspector general would actually be selected by unanimous consent of the four state officeholders.

The executive inspector general would be housed in the same office as the inspector general that reports to the governor, but would oversee issues related to the four executive offices.

Step two would be an inspector general commission that was a citizen-based commission that all three inspector generals would answer to - legislative inspector general, the regular inspector general and the executive inspector general.

And that commission would actually have the ability to require an inspector general to take up an investigation so where if you have a situation where the inspector general refuses to investigate, then this commission could actually work with that inspector general and say you have to investigate.
But it would also allow if there was a question for the inspector general ... you could take it to the commission and let the commission decide if the inspector general would investigate.

I have a plan written out ... I like the idea that you would have a citizen-based commission that would actually be working with the inspector generals so that there would be no question that they were taking up something that people cared about. They could still act on their own, of course.

Not too long ago, a few election officials were removed from their office. ...

It was during the appointment process. So every two years, I appoint half the members of the boards of elections. Two I did not reappoint who were renominated and one I did not appoint who was nominated for the first time and that was out of 176.

Unfortunately, they all happened to be Republican and there were others that I would have liked to have not reappointed, but I only went with those three because I felt those were ones that it was serious enough that I needed to address it and that I knew I could defend it in court.

What goes into that decision - do you look at their track record or is there politics involved?

Some people would say there were, but in this case it was an instance in how well the board was operating.
In the case of Alex Arshinkoff. I had already received 14 tie votes out of that board of elections in just a little over a year. There was so much discord intention on that board, I'd been there, I could sense it, I could see it myself.

When we looked at Hardin County, we had a board member who was an attorney who refused to follow a directive of the secretary of state and by law he was required to do that. Even after he was told to do that he still refused following it and I couldn't sanction that. I couldn't say that this is OK, especially when he was an attorney. That was very clear cut.

The third one was a director of a board of elections who had been fired and was being appointed as a board member. I felt there would be so much acrimony at the board because she even showed up at a poll worker training session before her appointment was rejected by me and was correcting her replacement on how she was doing the poll worker training. I thought a board can't operate like this ...Because I sit in an apportionment board seat, it's easy for the other side politically to say this is all politically motivated because they don't want to see me get re-elected.

In this case, there was very good reason to do what I did and I can support everything I did with evidence and facts, and if I had to do it again I would do the same thing.

The Secretary of State's office is supposed to be nonpartisan as possible. How do you keep politics out of the office?

I was a judge before I was secretary of state and as a judge when I campaigned, I was not able to support or oppose any particular candidate. So I've carried that mindset into the secretary of state office.

When I break a tie vote at a board of elections, I treat it like a judicial decision where I try to be objective and weigh the facts and apply the law and reach the best decision I know under the law.

I've voted with Republicans and I've voted with Democrats because generally the tie votes break within party lines.

I've kept Clyde Evans on the ballot in Jackson County who is a Republican state representative, and I'm sure Democrats weren't very happy with me for doing that, but I've done what I felt was right.

How often do tie-breaking votes come to you?

On the average once a month, sometimes more, depends on the time of the year. ... When I took over and when anyone new comes in, it's a feeling-out process.

Power of the directive, what is taken into consideration before that's how you need to implement something?
When you look at the statute, it's in conjunction with instructions. What I'm trying to do is to promote the uniformity of rights.

I understand there may be different ways to do things and I honor that because elections is so much a process we have to ensure that the process does not adversely affect the uniformity of rights. And so because I've worked with elections for so long, worked in the secretary of state's office 25 years ago and practiced election law, I served as a judge, I can take a law or scenario and translate it into practice and understand how there could be different variations or permutations and also understand how those variations or permutations can actually affect people's rights.

So when I make that analysis, I'm able to see where there is something we may need a directive on so that we can protect people's rights to participate in their government and also so that we're providing good instructions to the boards of elections. Without that kind of guidance and instruction, it can result in chaos, which can also affect people's ability to participate.

Reimbursement checks for counties that use backup paper ballots, is that something still under consideration for the November election as well?

We're looking at the potential for using backup paper ballots in November.
If we use them, we plan to reimburse.