I just had lunch with two secretaries of state, Jennifer Brunner of Ohio and Beth Chapman of Alabama. For both, their jobs have been made more complicated by the fact that their predecessors were so controversial.
Brunner succeeded Ken Blackwell, who became a national figure due to charges that he could not impartially conduct and oversee presidential voting, since he was a state chairman for President Bush's reelection campaign. Ohio, of course, became the "Florida of 2004" amidst charges that some voters were disenfranchised. Brunner, a Democrat, speaks about all this openly but without any pleasure. "If I do my job right," she says, "no one will know who the secretary of state is."
Chapman's predecessor is less notorious but in more legal trouble. Nancy Worley is under indictment and awaiting trial on charges that she sought to use her position to influence votes. Worley sent campaign materials, including a fundraising solicitation, to five of her employees in violation of state law. Her trial is on hold pending the state attorney general's attempts to reinstate felony charges that a judge threw out.
All of which demonstrates, once again, how difficult it can be for election officials to appear to be above the fray -- especially when they are office-seekers themselves. Chapman and Brunner both sounded sincere as they discussed the ways in which they are trying to institutionalize more open and defensible practices to help restore confidence in their offices. (Brunner inherited 21 pending lawsuits against her office; Chapman, a mere eight.)
They were in Washington to tout their work with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Overseas Vote Foundation to make it easier for soldiers and sailors to register and cast their votes. In 2006, a majority of ballots mailed to overseas voters were not returned in time to be counted. The foundations have collaborated on a new Web-based system that makes online registration and absentee ballot requests much simpler.
Each state -- surprise -- has varying policies in place and different ways of making its rules and requirements known. The new system is meant to regularize all of this and make the process more automatic. Alabama and Ohio -- along with Minnesota -- are the first states to host the software on their own sites, making it more readily accessible. It's designed, though, to follow each state's peculiarities, according to Michael Caudell-Feagan, project director of Pew's Make Voting Work initiative.
That project, Caudell-Feagan says, is an effort to identify particular problems within the overall elections system and try to come up with ways to fix them. I should note that Governing has accepted funding from Pew for the Government Performance Project and other joint efforts.
Chapman and Brunner both said they were happy to adopt software that can help those who are defending the nation overseas participate in democracy at home. We'll have to wait and see, of course, whether many more states adopt this system and whether it really does help clean up the glitches this particular pool of voters has experienced in the past.