When Jennifer Brunner won the office in 2006, she ended more than 15 years of Republican dominance in that position and replaced Ken Blackwell, the Cincinnati native who made an unsuccessful bid for the Ohio governor’s office the same year. Like Blackwell, Brunner’s term is ending not because she didn’t get enough votes, but because she opted to pursue a higher office instead of seeking reelection. Brunner ran in the 2010 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate against Lee Fisher. She lost the primary and Fisher ended up being trounced by Republican Rob Portman in last month’s midterm elections.
“I actually am going back to my old law firm,” Brunner says, adding that she’ll also be on the lookout for opportunities to teach. “I founded my law firm, so I’m used to being a free agent.”
Brunner is quick to say that she has no regrets about how things developed this year.
“I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to campaign for the United States senate,” she says. “It’s enabled me the get to know the people of Ohio better and engage with them on the issues.”
More importantly, Brunner adds, a reelection run would have exposed many of her office's reforms to political attacks.
Brunner enumerates the four goals she had when she took office: Create a scorecard to measure the quality of life in Ohio; ensure that business filings would be quickly processed by her office; address privacy concerns within public records; and restore trust in Ohio elections.
There has been progress in all of the areas but the election reforms, specifically, are a “fragile, new system,” she says.
Brunner believes some of the improvements she made, such as requiring back-up ballots at polling stations, would've been cast as a waste of money in a campaign.
With other changes, it might have been argued that she somehow had her thumb on the scale, making the changes to help her fellow Democrats. Neither are true, she says, but she preferred giving the reforms time to take root by not running for reelection and making them an issue.
Brunner also put an end to “sleepovers,” the practice of poll-workers taking voting machines and ballots home with them the night before election. Until she took office, this was done in many Ohio counties, intended as a way to secure the equipment.
Instead, the practice actually exposed the machines to tampering and “this is sensitive election equipment, sensitive to heat and cold and having it in somebody’s trunk, it was definitely not acceptable.”
Other procedural changes made by Brunner to Ohio’s elections included barring elections workers from using lists of foreclosures to disqualify voters; clarifying how provisional ballots are to be used (the emergency ballots are used too often, she says); and ending the use of electronic voting machines in Ohio.
The last reform was done because, after Brunner took office in 2007, her research revealed that all of Ohio’s electronic voting machines could easily be hacked and rigged.
“One of the problems we had was a lack of uniformity in how we were implementing the election laws,” Brunner says. “We have to offer people the same opportunity to access voting … When we came in, we tried to help people unlearn bad practices.”
The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation gave Brunner a “Profiles in Courage” Award in 2008 for her electoral reforms.
Here's what the JFK Library Foundation said about her work:
A series of voting irregularities in several major Ohio counties that use electronic voting systems led newly elected Secretary of State Jennifer Brunnerto order that paper ballots be provided to any voter who requested one during the state’s March 2008 presidential primary. Furthermore, after a study of the state’s new electronic voting systems — just two years old and representing millions in public investment — found that the systems made by several major voting machine manufacturers could be compromised, Brunner called for the replacement of all of the state’s electronic voting systems with paper ballots and optical scan technology before the November 2008 presidential election. Brunner’s proposal brought pointed and persistent criticism from partisans around the state; opponents of the move objected to the cost and questioned the necessity of returning to paper ballots.
But Brunner's work also garnered negative attention. After the 2008 election, she had round-the-clock protection from the Ohio State Highway Patrol for seven weeks following threats on her life. Ensuring that every votes count, it seems, is dangerous business.
So far, the transition of her office to Secretary of State-elect Jon Husted has been a smooth one. She doesn't anticipate that he will try to roll back her reforms, explaining that Ohio is an important battleground state and that, “People expect to see order and uniformity throughout the state. If someone were to unwind that there would be protest.”
In an example of a metaphor taking life, Brunner’s new office has a glass ceiling above the conference room, one that she’s ready to smash, she jokes. Turning more serious, Brunner says one of the reasons she made her run for the Senate seat was because Ohio has never had a female U.S. senator and it can be difficult for the public to envision a woman in a position when one has never held it before.
“Hopefully I pushed things farther along,” she says, “so the next (woman) will have an easier time of it.”