EVEREST Guru Gone, Brunner Turns Down Help from Election Experts, Emboldens GOP Opposition
ONB COLUMBUS: On the same day Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner convened a gathering of reporters to further defend her decision from mid-December to force a costly wholesale change in equipment, process and locations for all voters come the November elections, the OhioNews Bureau learned a key staffer central to her controversial EVEREST study was no longer in his position, and also failed to respond to offers of help from voting system, rights experts.
Seeing the opposition starting to mobilizing against her calls for big, radical voting changes, Brunner is counter punching by launching a PR listening tour in the form of a series of town-hall meetings around Ohio, where citizens can make their voice heard on her decisions to change voting in Cuyahoga County as early as March and for everyone else by November, when record-setting voter turnout is expected as America decides which presidential candidate will bring the kind of change the country is crying for.
Also breaking today was the news that the Ohio Republican Party has invited Republican elections board members from around the state to gather at a private meeting tomorrow to discuss the party's response to the Secretary of State's voting proposals.
EVEREST GURU GONE
Elections, Research and Operations Specialist David J. Klein, the agency point person on EVEREST, Brunner's study of Ohio’s voting system, is no longer in that position. Klein became a part of her starting team on day one last January, but is no longer with the office of Secretary of State. Klein reported to assistant secretary of state Christopher Nance, an attorney who previously served as a district director for Democratic Congressman Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Cleveland.
As recently as December 14th, when Brunner made her public presentation of her now-controversial EVEREST report, which was supposed to assure Ohioans that their votes will be tabulated and counted but what seems to have provoked an avalanche of legitimate criticism and a partisan divide over the nature and costs over its recommendations, Klein was seen standing behind her in the Statehouse Atrium, the site of the gathering.
As an unclassified employee, Klein serves at the pleasure of Brunner and is employed at her discretion. The timing of his firing is curious and as of yet unexplained. With EVEREST completed, were Klein’s services no longer needed, or was there another reason for him vacating his position?
ONB was contacted by Candice Hoke, Director of the Cleveland State University Center for Election Integrity and a member of the Voting Rights Institute, an advisory group to Brunner. She offered the following comment on the significance of Klein's departure.
"Dave's departure from the OH-SOS is a major indicator of the depth and breadth of problems in that important office. I've worked with the OH-SOS office since early 2007. Dave Klein was the only OH-SOS staff member with sophisticated knowledge about election technology and security issues, the only staffer with knowledge about the types of post-election auditing that has been piloted, and the primary staffer seeking greater transparency and verification of election results as core objectives that the OH-SOS should prioritize in policies. Ohio voters and Ohio election officials have just lost one of the best informed and most dedicated proponents of fair, transparent, and administratively successful elections." [Candice Hoke]
Brunner, it appears, has been working hard to out wonk everyone, reporters and critics alike, in her defense of the mounting criticism she has uncorked taking issue with the scope and cost of her recommendations. Klein is married and has children, and being suddenly unemployed in the path of an oncoming recession was probably not one of his New Year’s resolutions.
A public spokesman for Brunner declined to comment further, saying only that Klein resigned, a source told ONB.
BRUNNER DECLINES HELP FROM VOTING SYSTEM, RIGHTS EXPERTS
In an exclusive ONB interview Monday with Larry Norden, counsel and project director of the Voting Technology Assessment Project of the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice, the expert on voting systems, voting rights and government accountability expressed serious reservations about Brunner’s drive to make such a radical change in voting in such a short time in the Buckeye State.
“I’m concerned that making really dramatic changes in the way Ohio votes, especially for the firs time in November,makes me nervous,” said Norden, author of The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World (Academy Chicago Press) and a contributor to the Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties (Routledge 2007).
He said the expected high turnout will only compound Election Day troubles if problems like inexperience with new machines and system logistics by poll workers or adequate education of voters about new central voting places are not avoided, which is unlikely, he said, give the radical change from touch-screen machines to optical scanners and the elimination of 90 percent of existing voting precincts, as Brunner is proposing.
Without revealing the specifics of private memos sent to Brunner in September by the Brennan Center to proffer its expertise with issues related to the EVEREST project, Norden did confirm that Brunner never responded to the center’s offer of help. “We explicitly offered to help her with recommendations,” he said, adding that California Secretary Debra Bowen, who did a review of her state’s voting machines and who decertified most of them, “reached out to the Brennen Center and lots of other organizations.”
What’s significant with this revelation is that Brunner, whose hour-long meeting with the editorial board of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer was recorded, said that she would not have proceeded in this fashion if she didn’t ascertain for herself that there still was time to implement this change.
Admitting that she wasn’t comfortable with the time frame, Brunner said that “if someone had told me who understood technology and what it took to implement, I wouldn’t have voted the way I did. I talked to a number of people and felt comfortable that it could be done.”
Knowing that Norden offered his expertise and that of the Brennen Center to Bruner on her recommendations, her recorded comments that she couldn’t find any one to help her evaluate matters seems to be disingenuous at best and a blatant falsehood at worst, given Norden offers of help back in September.
Norden, a graduate of the University of Chicago and New York University School of Law, stressed the need for better poll worker training and a better voter education program. He said its easy to do this when you have a system that has been used for a long time. But he said changing polling locations for 90 percent of voters, or going to mail-in voting when their isn’t a lot of experience, opens up a net set of risks. “What experience is there to lean on to address potential problems that would arise?” he asked.
He’s concerned about developing training materials when systems are changing, as they will in Ohio, and said election officials, at the state level and at the local level, should not be surprised if a host of new problems arise with a new system. “They’re not going to know all the answers to all the questions that crop up ahead of time,” he said.
Furthermore, Norden said he couldn’t recall anywhere in the country where a majority of people in a county will vote on a piece of paper and have no machine that would let them know they made a mistake. Brunner wants to transport optical scan paper ballots to one of approximately 1,163 central-vote count centers (like a board of elections, school or other facility) where high-speed optical scanners will blast through thousands of paper ballots. Underscoring the importance of both security and reliability, Norden said central-count optical scanners are not more secure than precinct scanners, which are smaller, different machines, and, if programming errors occur, could compound problems due to the difference in magnitude between them and their small precinct cousins.
Formerly a private practice attorney concentrating in commerical litigation, technology and bankruptcy law, Norden said there tend to be more errors with central-count scanners, and the issue of “what counts as a vote and what doesn’t, becomes a much bigger question.” Even though Ohio no longer use a punch-card system of voting, Norden said the optical scanner equivalent of a “hanging chad” – the term made infamous during the Florida presidential election recount in 2000 -- could arise again in Ohio, only with optical scanners.
Not knowing the vote totals at a precinct level before the paper ballots are transported to a central vote center for tabulation constitutes an election administration problem Norden wonders how Brunner will address it.
He was also in the dark about where Brunner came up with the number of paper ballots boards of elections are to have on site for voters who want to cast a paper ballot instead of voting by touch-screen machine. He’s concern is based on his understanding that California, which had a similar requirement, ran out of ballots.
These comments by Norden were reflective of concerns expressed by other election experts. Contacted by the Plain Dealer, Hoke, said, "It's going to be problematic because you can't anticipate everything in this short time. There are still many, many details to be worked out."
GOP, SENSING VULNERABILITY, MOBILIZES AGAINST BRUNNER
A report by Ohio.com said elections officials in at least three counties are balking at Brunner's directive that counties with touch-screen machines make a certain number of paper ballots available during the March primary for voters who don't want to use the machines.
Showing opposition to her decision to force radical changes in such a short time frame, these insurgent counties also said they will have trouble complying with the SOS recommendation that the 57 counties that use touch-screen machines scrap them in favor of an optical-scan system, in which ballots filled out by hand are tabulated by computer scanners.
Brunner, a Democrat, has emboldened Republicans to challenge decisions she has made in her first year on the job, which some believe have turned one-time friends and supporters into new opponents. Brunner is right when she says that elections ought not to be about political gamesmanship, but her campaign was built on bashing her Republican predecessor for his overt political affiliations, which she said she would not do if elected to the office. "It's about doing what's right for the voters of Ohio of both parties," she said, according to Ohio.com.
The online report quoted the political director of the Ohio Republican Party, who said the meeting is an effort to gather feedback from Republican elections board members, who are matched with a like number of Democrats to make up each elections board. By it very nature, the Ohio GOP’s Jason Mauk said “the process is partisan.”
"I don't think it's any secret that Ohio has election boards made up of partisan members and we believe it's important to communicate with those people on the boards who are affiliated with the Republican Party," Mauk said, and Ohio.com reported. Brunner, said Democrats would “Absolutely not" hold a similar meeting.
Keith Cunningham, the director of the Allen County Board of Elections and immediate past president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, predicted there would be "widespread balking" to Brunner's directive and recommendations.
"The changes being proposed by Brunner are at such a late date, and so abrupt that all of the counties that these decisions affect are struggling with them," he said. "You simply can't turn the election system on a dime."
The brewing bitterness between Republicans and Brunner, who some say has been single-minded about her plans and who has repeatedly accused her naysayers of as being political partisans, was caught by Joe Hallett of The Columbus Dispatch. Using the politically charged word "poison" to describe the tensions rising over Brunner's plan, Hallett appears to be casting aspersions on the meeting by Republicans.
Hallett quotes Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, saying the method behind the meeting is to "coordinate political attacks against the secretary of state." Political motivations are at the heart of Ohio's bi-partisan system, so Redfern's comment should be not be any more valid than that of Mauk, who acknowledged that partisanship drives what each party does.
John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.
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