The League of Women Voters of Ohio has advocated for the creation of an impartial – ideally, independent and nonpartisan – election-administration system since 2007. This would provide continuity and professionalism in an increasingly complex – and contentious – area of government and law. In addition, it would to reduce opportunities for partisan advantage or the appearance of partisan advantage in the system. This key reform is posited by the League in both our 10-POINT PROPOSAL FOR ELECTION ADMINISTRATION REFORM created in 2007, and reaffirmed in 2008 in our FOUR R’S OF ELECTION REFORM. The League believes it is essential that members of any such independent administrative authority be prohibited from participating in or contributing to any issue or candidate on the ballot in order to maintain the appearance and reality of independence.
Monday, September 28, 2009 3:02 AM
By Mark Niquette- The Columbus Dispatch
It's time for Ohio to consider creating a bipartisan state board of elections to work with an elected secretary of state as a way to help improve voter confidence in how elections are run. That's the conclusion of Jennifer Brunner, Ohio's current chief elections officer, in a new report that advocates starting a discussion about restructuring the job of secretary of state. The idea is to keep an elected secretary to oversee day-to-day administration of elections but shift some of the major election decisions to an appointed, bipartisan state board similar to the bipartisan county boards of elections.
The motivation stems from a spate of lawsuits in recent elections and accusations that high-profile decisions by the secretary were driven by political considerations -- regardless of which party's official held the office. Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell faced allegations that he was trying to help George W. Bush carry Ohio in 2004, for example, and Brunner, a Democrat, faced similar accusations involving Barack Obama last year. "Are we doing any favor to the process if those kinds of accusations can be made?" Brunner asked. "What are we doing to people's confidence in the process? Brunner, who has decided to run for the U.S. Senate next year instead of seeking re-election, isn't endorsing a specific proposal or timetable. But she thinks it's a good time to start the debate.
The report that Brunner expects to release soon is being shared with the state's two major political parties and the candidates for secretary of state next year, Brunner spokesman Patrick Gallaway said.
State Sen. Jon Husted of Kettering, the leading GOP candidate for the post, has tangled with Brunner about his residency status and other issues. But he also has advocated a "bipartisan decision-making process leading to nonpartisan outcomes." "I welcome her support of my ideas," Husted said.
Gallaway said Brunner's report was not a response to Husted's candidacy but grew out of a study the office started last fall about how other states run elections. Brunner has highlighted six states -- Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Rhode Island, South Dakota and West Virginia -- with "hybrid" systems featuring a board and top elections official. Voters soundly rejected a constitutional amendment in 2005 proposed by the group Reform Ohio Now that would have put a state elections board in charge. Some analysts said at the time that the outcome suggested Ohioans want to keep the ability to elect their chief elections officer.
Because Ohio is a battleground state, adding a bipartisan board likely wouldn't end lawsuits, but it could help temper accusations about stolen elections and the resulting erosion of voter confidence in the outcomes, experts say. "I think it's worthy of more attention than it has gotten," said Steven F. Huefner, an associate law professor at Ohio State University and senior fellow at the university's election-law center.
Not everyone thinks the current system needs to change. Marilyn Jacobcik, who recently resigned as president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials after retiring as deputy elections director in Lorain County, said she's concerned that a new board would mean delays in decisions at the state level that local officials need to be able to run elections smoothly. "It sounds like to me we're creating another layer of bureaucracy," Jacobcik said.
But Herb Asher, an Ohio State professor emeritus of political science and a leader of Reform Ohio Now in 2005, said he thinks it is appropriate to consider the idea. He noted there also has been discussion about changing the partisan process for drawing legislative and congressional districts after each census. He said the reform proposals can complement each other. For example, replacing the state Apportionment Board, which redraws the legislative districts, can help reduce the politicization of the secretary of state's office, he said.
That's because the secretary is one of the three statewide elected officials on the board. Each political party has heightened incentive to win the secretary's office to control the Apportionment Board and redraw boundaries favorable to the party. "I think it's a very healthy sign that we're actually addressing how to remove some of the partisanship from the administration of elections as well as (redistricting)," Asher said.