Ohio SOS Breaks Tie, Chooses Optical Scan Machines for Cuyahoga, It’s Her Election Now

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner broke a 2-2 tie vote between Republicans and Democrats on the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections (CCBOE) over whether to stick with its $21 million dollar touch-screen voting system or spend millions more to switch to optical scanners in preparation for next year’s presidential race, which will kickoff with Ohio’s primary on March 4th now less than 75 days away.

Brunner’s decision, which came one week after she announced the findings of her $1.8 million federally funded study on the state’s voting system that revealed the numerous vulnerabilities it posed, will mean Cuyahoga County, Ohio’s most populous county and the scene of previous Election Day train wrecks, has little room for error as it prepares to replace one machine with another, counting votes in a central location instead of in individual precincts and training poll workers for the task ahead.

In an Associated Press article, Brunner said in a letter to the CCBOE that she found the move to a high-speed central count optical-scan system for paper ballots for the March 2008 primary election is “the best way to ensure a safe, reliable and trustworthy primary election.”

The CCBOE’s executive director, Jane Platten said it was no longer a matter of “can we do this…this situation is we must do this and we must do it right.”

Doing it right is on other minds as well. Respected industry experts, from various voting-rights advocates to independent professionals at The Brennan Center and at Election Law @ Moritz combed through Brunner’s report – EVEREST – and raised valid questions illustrating how some of her recommendations, while good for discussion, could lead to further problems if hastily implemented.

As recently as yesterday, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer wrote an editorial arguing against changing the county’s voting machines. It said that “If it (next year’s election) goes well, more power to the state's chief elections officer. If things go wrong, Brunner will get - and deserve - the lion's share of the blame.” In effect, the PD said that Brunner will own the election. Within the first three months on the job, Brunner, a Democrat and the first women to hold the high office of chief elections officer, fired the entire CCBOE, which at the time was led by Bob Bennett, an attorney and head of the Ohio GOP.

In reconstituting the board with two new Democrats and Republicans, Brunner hand-picked the two Democrats, a privilege given to her by the Cuyahoga Democratic Party who chose to let her review candidates. The county GOP chose its own representatives. So Brunner’s fingerprints are all over this new board.

Because each of Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections are balanced between Democrats and Republicans, tie votes on issues from the ordinary to the extraordinary are common place, as was demonstrated again on the issue of scrapping costly machines in order to buy more new, costly machines.

Brunner’s sincerity to improve Ohio’s elections has not yet been challenged, despite her overt partisanship as a life-long Democrat and career politician who aspires to not only win election in 2010, based on what she hopes will be her calling card of smooth elections this year, but to take a crack at running for governor in 2014, when Ted Strickland, who’s high popularity could assure a second term if it holds out, can no longer run.

But the PD editorial didn’t mince words when it came to what it thought was a bad decision by Brunner to move as quickly as she did with the switch.

”Before the elections board meets this afternoon, Brunner should assure its four members that she is prepared to wear the jacket for any significant problems that occur during the primary.

“But to make that switch barely two months before a complex and important vote invites yet another Cuyahoga County elections debacle.

“Evaluating the future on March 5 makes sense. Playing Russian roulette with March 4 doesn't.”

Brunner had many weeks in the preparation of the report to know its findings, talk with those who conducted the tests, speak privately with key staff and local election officials who made up a bi-partisan advisory board. So based on her quick call to change out one machine for another in face of the valid advice not to do, it follows that Platten disclosed that county officials and attorneys began working with the optical scanner vendor, Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Software, even before Brunner made her decision late Friday.

Without firm figures to report, it seems that about $1 million will be spent to lease 15 high-speed scanners and about 60 more that will be placed in precincts around the county for the March primary election.

Platten said the focus would change from equipment to poll worker training and managing the flow of paper ballots from precincts to the central-vote locations.

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@www.epluribusmedia.org

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