A couple of days ago I had the good fortune of attending a reception for Ohio’s new secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner. It was held at our new Democratic Party headquarters—in a basement on Pigspittle’s town square. Brunner spoke at our women’s group before the election and I was impressed then. Now I’m even more so.
She spoke primarily about her office’s Voting Rights Institute initiative. As most people know, Ohio’s election system is in bad shape, thanks to the previous administration led by Ken Blackwell, which did everything it could to disenfranchise voters in urban areas (read: black, poor, and Democratic)—stocking fewer voting booths and creating long lines, establishing arcane rules for registration cards midstream, and other nefarious tactics.
Brunner’s Voting Rights Institute is designed to serve as a clearinghouse for complaints and ideas on how to improve the election process in Ohio. Her mission is “to promote civic participation and a stronger democracy through ensuring every Ohioan’s right to vote in an election system that is free, fair, open and honest.”
To move forward, Brunner formed the Voting Rights Institute Advisory Council, which meets quarterly. What’s special about this group is its membership: Brunner has invited everyone who has a stake in good election policy, from the party leadership on both sides of the fence to the activist Black Box group, to serve on the advisory council.
Having worked on the 2004 election recount, this development is especially gratifying. And seeing that Pigspittle County gave Brunner 42% of its votes demonstrates how local activism can shape the bigger picture. As Brunner told us this week, she had to earn bigger margins in the red counties in order to win the state.
There’s something special about being politically active in a small town. It’s a fine thing to sit on folding chairs in a small dingy basement with your other citizens—some dressed in suits, others wearing overalls—and have the opportunity to speak directly with your representatives.
It’s even finer to feel some gratitude. When Brunner opened the floor to questions, the first person to speak was an older gentleman sitting a few seats away from me. He said, “I don’t have a question. I just want to say that after all we went through with the previous secretary, well, I’m just so proud of you.”