When U.S. voters go to the polls in November to elect the next president, media pundits and advocacy groups again will be keeping a close eye on Ohio.
As almost anyone with a pulse knows, President Bush won reelection in 2004 thanks to Ohio's 20 electoral votes. And he won the Buckeye State by a meager 2.1 percent margin over John Kerry in what many critics allege was a deeply flawed election process.
The election four years ago was marred by various problems throughout Ohio, including dubious purges of voter rolls, areas that didn't receive enough voting machines, long lines at the polls and lingering questions about whether every ballot cast was in fact counted.
Some believe the process was intentionally manipulated by then-Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell — a Cincinnati native — to help his Republican brethren, while others say the problems were simply the result of incompetence. Regardless, Americans were saddled with yet another presidential election that left a bad taste in their mouths.
Jennifer Brunner, the Democrat who was elected in 2006 to replace Blackwell as Secretary of State, is determined that this presidential election will be different.
Last winter Brunner overhauled security procedures for the touch screen e-voting machines known as Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) systems — used in many Ohio counties — after bipartisan testing revealed they could be easily manipulated by outside factors and had "critical security failures" that could compromise the integrity of elections.
"Right now, any new iteration of touch screen is stuck in the federal testing and certification pipeline," Brunner told CityBeat while she was in town last week for the NAACP's annual convention. "The future looks somewhat bleak (for DREs) unless and until they can engineer machines up to the standards of other equipment in the computer industry that we use every day in our lives, like for banking and communication and travel.
"One major concern is the actual analysis we did of the source code of the program that operates the entire system. It's outdated software that, in some instances, is written in 27 different (computer) languages. And the more it's patched the more unstable it becomes."
For example, the DREs inexplicably dropped about 150 votes in Butler County during Ohio's March primary that should have been counted. The problem was detected there in time but raised concerns about votes in other counties where the machines are used.
"We did a survey of other Diebold systems in the state and found other instances where the equipment is prone to that," Brunner says. "We've asked the manufacturer for a reason why this occurred, and we'll be shoring those systems up for November."
Currently each of Ohio's 88 counties can use its choice of either optical scan or touch screen machines, with three different versions of each available. Hamilton County uses optical scanning, which Brunner considers more reliable. Even in counties that choose touch screens, though, they still must use optical scan to count absentee ballots.
Brunner would prefer to abolish all DRE machines until they're improved and made more secure but says the cost would be too high.
"It's a matter of expense," she says. "I have the authority to decertify equipment. If I felt it was a viable option, I would've decertified the touch screen machines, but I was not going to saddle the counties with an unfunded mandate to buy new equipment when we have at least 53 counties using them, from one manufacturer or another."
Instead, Brunner's office is mandating changes in security procedures for the e-voting machines.
"What we did is we went to Plan B, which was to sit down with (county) elections officials and work through extensive 'best practices' (policies) for security from chain of custody to polling place security to security needed for ballots and materials," she says. "Those are in the works right now. We've spent quite a bit of time with elections officials since April working out what we consider to be, at least, minimum standards that would constitute best practices for Ohio.
"After the election, we will be conducting post-election audits in all counties so that we can verify the paper records against the electronic records so we can verify their accuracy."
Brunner also is implementing other methods for improving Ohio's elections.
"We're going to be offering people in counties with DREs the option of having a paper ballot, if they prefer, and they will be counted Election Night," she says. "We're doing extensive training of poll workers. Every poll worker in the state will be supplied with a flip chart that has the basics of what you need to know as a poll worker, and it will be the same information no matter where you go in the state."
Part of the systemic problem, she adds, is that many jobs at county Boards of Elections have been patronage positions doled out by party leaders to repay political favors.
"One of the first things I did when I came into office was to require that there be minimum qualifications for directors and deputy directors of Boards of Elections," Brunner says. "Also, requiring that the boards actually advertise in newspapers and have outside candidates and that election experience would count 50 percent more than any other type of experience. There's been some grumbling because of that. ...
"This not your grandmother's election anymore. We're using computers and electronic equipment that require some expertise and sophistication. Elections are becoming more complex, and it requires some management experience."
Brunner sidesteps questions about whether the 2004 presidential election was stolen in Ohio but says Blackwell didn't fulfill his responsibilities as secretary of state.
"I think that all the votes that were cast were counted," she says. "I think there was a bigger problem in the administration of the election, in that there were some people who were disenfranchised — the long lines, the unequal distribution of voting machines in some counties.
"We had an exceptional turnout like we had not seen before in Ohio, which typically causes problems for election officials, including poll workers. But on top of that, we had a secretary of state who did not do the kind of work necessary to help the Boards of Elections prepare for an election of that magnitude. There was not the kind of partnership that there should have been between the secretary of state and the Boards of Elections."
Still, Brunner is more troubled that Blackwell was co-chair of Bush's reelection campaign in Ohio while also serving as the state's chief elections officer.