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Former Ohio Sec. of State Brunner weighs in on absentee ballot application ban

Ohio’s former Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner stopped short of criticizing her replacement, but made it clear they disagreed on the importance of absentee ballot application mailings.

The mailings, conducted by county boards of elections, were among the reforms put in place by Brunner after she took office in 2007. But current secretary Jon Husted has prohibited counties from mailing any unsolicited ballot applications at all, in an effort to ensure “uniformity.”

“Husted and I have always had a difference of opinion on whether it was okay to have some counties mail out the applications or not, dating back his time as speaker for the Ohio House of Representatives,” Brunner said. “We finally just agreed to disagree.”

Brunner encouraged the mailings as one way to alleviate long lines in urban areas. Counties such as Cuyahoga, with over a million registered voters, experienced near-pandemonium on Election Day in both 2000 and 2004 as voters waited for hours in inclement weather, some voters found they had been purged from registered voter databases and some polling stations ran out of paper ballots.

Both the 2008 and 2010 elections ran far more smoothly in Ohio. Conversely, nearly a third of all votes were cast with absentee ballots last year.

This year, however, Brunner said she’s heard some voters express confusion over the rule change.

“I was on a TeleTown conference meeting that about 4700 people had dialed in to, and I listened to some older women in Cuyahoga County say, ‘wait a minute, I’m not going to get my absentee ballot application? Where am I going to get one?’” she recounted. “Whenever there’s a change, it takes two or three years for voters to get used to the new practice.”

Brunner said what works for a rural county doesn’t necessarily work for an urban county.

“Let’s just look at individual counties: if you are in a county like Cuyahoga, with more than a million voters, and there folks are used to getting an absentee ballot in the mail, you are going to create difficulties,” she said. “The larger urban counties, that’s where you find the long lines, that’s where you have greater concentration of population, and that’s when you use certain strategies to make sure you ease the congestion of those lines, and they may be different than the strategies you use in the rural areas, to make sure we’re providing ample access to every voter.”

Husted came in conflict with Cuyahoga’s County executive over his decision to ban the mailings. They reached an agreement for the ban to stand this year, with Husted vowing to mail absentee ballot applications to every voter in Ohio for next year’s presidential election, using funds available from the Help American Vote act, a federal law designed to assist local governments with election management.

Brunner, however, doesn’t think that’s the best plan for promoting voting stability in Ohio.

“My philosophy was to use [HAVA] funds to strengthen the infrastructure in the state, not to pay bills,” she said. “They may have been used to pay for staff functions, but [only] for [information technology] needs, and electronic needs … such as county servers,” she said, observing that the 2012 fix is temporary, as HAVA funds can’t be used unless there’s a federal candidate or issue on the ballot.

“You can’t really use HAVA funds in odd-numbered years,” she said.

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