My grandparents were all immigrants from tyrant-ruled Eastern Europe during the early decades of the 20th century. They treasured their voting rights as only new citizens can, and they instilled in me their almost sappy love of the American ideals of liberty, justice, and fairness.
Having struggled to get to their promised land, they considered voting their sacred duty. Every election, no matter what. They weren’t naïve about politics, nor did they expect their favored candidates to win every time. They just wanted their votes counted honestly and their voices heard fairly.
They would have loved Jennifer Brunner, Ohio’s first female Secretary of State who served from 2007-2011. She’s a true American hero for cleaning up the state’s election system after its 2004 debacle, one that is remembered as one of the most sordid chapters in our nation’s history.
Ohio is a perennial battleground state. It has been pivotal to the outcome of every presidential election in recent history. And since 1944, as Ohio has gone, so has the nation with only one exception, when voters chose Nixon over Kennedy in 1960.
Most elections are won or lost with a mere 2 percent swing. So the consequences of even a scintilla of voter suppression or a few malfunctioning voting machines can turn an entire election and change the course of history. That’s why fair and honest elections are so incredibly important to American democracy.
In Brunner’s forthright memoir, Cupcakes and Courage, for which I was honored to write the foreword, you see firsthand the qualitative difference between a mere politician determined to stay in office even if it means jiggering the electoral system and an elected official who is first and foremost a public servant.
Brunner tells an inspiring story, full of juicy anecdotes that illustrate the power of the individual to make a difference. But unlike the single frosted cupcake on its cover, Cupcakes is not an individualistic story—far from it. Deeply rooted in values of family and social responsibility, she took those communitarian values into public service and audaciously trudged through bi-partisan criticism to protect the rights of the individual voter.
Brunner’s unwavering focus on fairness and transparency brought major changes to Ohio’s 2008 electoral processes, which in turn helped to restore voter confidence. Her unflinching description of what she did and why after the 2004 presidential election turned on the shifting sands of Cuyahoga County’s voting irregularities deserves to be a political science class staple.
“Many have questioned the efficacy of our  presidential election in Ohio,” says Brunner. “I simply questioned its fairness of process.”
Voting rights—yes, even in my grandparents’ rosy view of America—can be as fragile and as fleeting as they are in non-democratic nations around the globe. As a girl growing up in Texas, I heard the rumors of Lyndon Johnson stuffing ballot boxes in Jim Wells County with ballots of dead people. We might think those poll taxes, literacy tests, and other Jim Crow laws instituted in the South after the Civil War, and lasting well into the mid-20th Century, are well behind us.
But history is repeating itself this year in the wave of voter suppression initiatives sweeping the country. Just as a house that has been cleaned can become a mess again in record time, so the Ohio voting process that Brunner cleaned up—or any state that falls prey to divisive, partisan abuse of power—can, and in many battleground states, is faced with the risk of corruption and the contortion of the voice and will of its people.
As it has ever been historically, minorities often receive the short end of the voting rights stick. How tragic, considering that this country is the product of minorities, like my patriotic grandparents, at its core.
Since leaving office, Brunner started Fair Elections Ohio, a group that successfully fought back harmful Ohio voter suppression legislation, keeping 2008 voting rules in place for 2012.
In 2004, “Cuyahoga County” became a household term, and thus entered the political junkie’s lexicon as a metaphor for voter suppression. If President Obama wins Ohio, it’s likely that he will win a second term as president. If so, he will have Brunner to thank—not for manipulating voting mechanism to favor him, but simply to allow the people to speak through their votes, the franchise of a free nation.
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