Ohio ACLU Sues SOS Brunner on Claims Voting System Changes Unlawful and Will Result in More Uncounted Ballots

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: BREAKING NEWS: The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Ohio filed a lawsuit against state election officials in the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio late Thursday, challenging the use of unequal, inaccurate and inadequate voting technology in Ohio’s most populous county by Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

Brunner, the first Democrat to hold the office in 16 years and the first women to ever hold it, raised a ruckus when, as the state’s chief elections officer, she broke a 2-2 tie vote by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on December 20th that will turn the county into a guinea pig for her plan to use optically scanned paper ballots and introduce a new concept of tabulating and counting votes at central-vote centers on March 4th, when Ohio holds its primary election.

As a result of Brunner’s heavy-handed action, the CCBOE will now be forced to switch from expensive, vulnerable touch-screen voting machine technology to equally expensive, temperamental optical scanners some say may usher in a new set of problems, compounding smaller ones due to the record number of voters expected to turn out this year, possibly in March but definitely in November, when Ohioans weight in on who they want as their next president.

According to their statement, the groups legal action seeks to “block Cuyahoga County’s recent shift from using electronic voting machines to a system that lacks the ability to provide voters with notice of balloting errors and an opportunity to correct such mistakes.”

The plaintiffs say the machines violate the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Voting Rights Act.

“Every voting system – paper ballot or not – must give voters a chance to fix a mistake. Many votes will go uncounted if voters cannot verify that their ballots have been filled out correctly. Mandating an unequal voting system is intolerable and will inevitably lead to preventable disfranchisement. With Ohio’s presidential primary only weeks away, Cuyahoga County must abandon its deeply flawed and unreliable voting technology in order to protect the rights of every voter.” [Meredith Bell-Platts, staff attorney, ACLU Voting Rights Project]

Expressing their concern with Brunner’s plan to stop counting ballots at individual precincts and instead shipping them to central locations like a board of election, where they will be read by optical scan machines, the suit claims that under such a scenario voters are denied the opportunity to correct a mistake on their ballots>

Their argument is that, with error notification, the risk of a voter’s ballot not being counted is substantially reduced. Brunner, and the CCBOE, whose two new Democratic members she handpicked after firing the previous four-member board last March, have rejected this method.

“A system that protects every vote equally is not a luxury, it is a constitutional right. It is unacceptable for some Ohio voters to have the opportunity to identify and fix errors on their ballots, while other voters do not. The technology is available to correct this flaw and there is no reason to ignore this problem. In addition to its constitutional violations, the new system presents an untold logistical and financial disaster on the eve of the 2008 elections.” [Carrie Davis, staff counsel, ACLU Ohio]

Attorneys in the case are Bell-Platts, Laughlin McDonald and Neil Bradley of the ACLU, Davis of the ACLU of Ohio, and cooperating attorneys Paul Moke and Richard Saphire. The lawsuit was brought against Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, the Cuyahoga County Board of Commissioners, and the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on behalf of the ACLU of Ohio and voters across the county.

BRUNNER FACES BATTLE WITH COUNTIES OVER FUNDING

In separate news, Brunner seems to be waging war with various groups over her plans to bring wholesale change to the way Ohio votes. One range war that is heating up is with county commissioners who fund local boards of elections.

Brunner is scheduled to meet Friday with the County Commissioner’s Association of Ohio at the monthly gathering. ONB placed a call Tuesday to CCAO’s executive director, but he was out of the office and did not return the call as of today.

Three Ohio counties are balking at funding boards of elections for the November election. Fulton County said it would not comply with Brunner’s instructions, while officials in Union County said they don’t the funds available to pay for the changes.

The self-avowed election law expert and former common pleas court judge has said she will investigate the Franklin County BOE for “possible voting problems.” Critics of Brunner say this might be payback for the board’s executive director statements that her estimated costs for moving from one system of machines to another – about $31 million – is a low-ball estimate and that the real cost will be much higher. Brunner will be meeting with FCBOE officials soon to discuss this and other matters, no doubt.

Friday’s meeting with the CCAO board will be significant in another way as well. Sources who spoke to ONB on the condition of anonymity said there may be little love lost between CCAO and Brunner, because of the way she dressed down key CCAO officials in her office during a meeting that took place last year.

Brunner, who first spoke to local election officials at their winter meeting in January 2007, seemed to set up what may turn into a grudge match between her and counties, when she encouraged her audience to come to her if their county commissioners gave them any problems with funding. Those chickens may be coming home to roost for her. Statehouse watchers say that if push comes to shove in the General Assembly between her and Ohio counties, lawmakers, many of whom were former county commissioners, will be more open to their former authorities than to hers. But only time will tell what happens on this battle front.

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.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@epluribusmedia.org

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