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A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall

How is Jennifer Brunner, Ohio's embattled Secretary of State, holding up as the election (and the likely accusations of impropriety) approach?

COLUMBUS, OHIO--Less than a week before Election Day, the buzz in Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s office is about a Halloween mask. On Thursday morning, The Other Paper, a local news and entertainment weekly, had published a cover plastered with a picture of Brunner’s face, complete with dotted lines where readers could cut it out to wear for the holiday. The headline read, “Be A Future Movie Star For Halloween,” and an article inside suggested that Meryl Streep should play Brunner, an elected Democrat, in the movie that’s sure to be produced if Ohio is a nail-biter.

“My son called me this morning and said, ‘Hey Mom, I cut you out and hung you up on my desk,’” Brunner says with a chuckle, sitting on a couch in her 16th-floor corner office in downtown Columbus. She’s wearing the same pearl stud earrings featured in the mask photo. “I asked, ‘Did you cut out the eyes?’”

As the chief elections officer in one of this year’s most critical swing states, it’s hardly Brunner’s first time in the headlines. Like her Republican predecessor, Ken Blackwell, and Katherine Harris in Florida eight years ago, Brunner, 51, is a secretary of state commanding national attention. She has been praised by Democrats and demonized by Republicans for decisions she’s made about Ohio’s voting process.

Already, Brunner has won a high profile U.S. Supreme Court case, lost others at the state level, appeared as a heroine on The Rachel Maddow Show, and become a regular target for Fox pundits. She’s also on her way to surpassing Barack Obama as the Ohio GOP’s prime villain. The party has criticized her for ties to the now-infamous ACORN group, and, just last week, it launched an ad targeting Brunner, who isn’t up for reelection, for “concealing the evidence” of voter registration fraud. “She’s down, she’s up, she’s down, she’s up,” Brunner says, describing the media coverage with a demure smile.

Looking a bit ragged on the heels of a morning news conference and phone calls with local boards of elections, Brunner says she didn’t expect this sort of celebrity when she ran for secretary of state two years ago, even though she took over an office mired in scandal after Ohio’s controversial role in the 2004 presidential race. “I was just noticing when I went to buy my lunch that everybody looked at me when I came in,” Brunner says. “I thought, ‘When did this happen?’”

Heading into November 4, however, Brunner and her staff are trying to set aside the divisive litigation and media chaos to focus on troubleshooting. Brunner is expecting 80 percent turnout among Ohio’s record 8.3 million voters. Already, her office has issued roughly 100 directives about voting protocol, answered thousands of phone calls from concerned voters, and armed poll officials with various instruction sheets and flip charts.

“Whatever you say to the person in front of you to keep them from shooting you may be the very reason the person behind you shoots you,” Brunner says of the recent controversies that have shoved her into the spotlight. “You throw your hands up and say, ‘What else can I do?’”

On the floor below Brunner’s office, dozens of staffers in the Elections Division are recovering from months of GOP blasts while, at the same time, bracing themselves for Tuesday’s swarms of voters and the hiccups or disasters they might bring. “We’re preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best,” says field leader Katherine Thomsen, who will coordinate polling site checks and conference calls on Tuesday to keep the secretary of state’s office in the loop about what’s happening on the ground.

One wing of the floor houses a “phalanx of lawyers,” in one staffer’s words, ready to handle any legal problems, while another is staffed by campaign finance officers still answering phone calls about possible problems with candidates’ yard signs. Piles of filing boxes stuffed with election documents stretch down one wall in the floor’s central hub, past cubicles where “paper jockeys” are busy with faxes and e-mails from local precincts.

In one spacious office, a dozen staffers are stationed by computers and phones in what’s known as the Citizens’ Response Center. Since opening phone lines on October 20, the center has received more than 2,200 calls from voters with questions about the election. The staff expects hundreds more on Tuesday. “It gives us a chance to fix a problem before it becomes a catastrophe,” explains Tim Quinn, a constituent liaison, on a break from his phone. “But some people just want a sounding board,” he adds, gesturing to the response center. “They don’t want to hear you. You can tell right away, so you just put it on listening mode.”

Many of these calls are about a recent controversy over mismatches between new voters’ registration forms and their personal information--like Social Security numbers--in government databases. Brunner says voters shouldn’t be forced off the rolls or onto provisional ballots by flawed databases she inherited from her embattled Republican predecessor, particularly when studies show that most mismatches are due to clerical errors like typos. But the irate Ohio GOP is insisting that Brunner is helping to perpetrate fraud--and aid Barack Obama. (The majority of newly registered voters are Democrats.) “There’s been this pattern of partisan maneuvering on behalf of the secretary of state,” says John McClelland, communications director for the Ohio GOP. “We gave her the benefit of the doubt early on. She abused that.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in mid-October that Brunner didn’t have to release the list of some 200,000 names that came up with mismatches, the secretary says her office was barraged with “angry, spiteful, hateful phone calls.” One man even threatened to kill her. (He’s since been arrested, and Highway Patrol now guards Brunner’s house.) Her office also received a package containing a suspicious white powder and had to shut down its website when it was hacked.

“It’s such a volatile and personal issue to so many people, about the right to vote, that you’re bound to upset people no matter how hard you try to do it right,” says Brunner, adding that the GOP’s accusations are “shenanigans.”

“She’s not going to be bullied,” says former Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Leland, criticizing the Republicans’ attacks on Brunner as attempts to stir up public mistrust in the voting system. “To get hung up on these political games and artificially affect the outcome of an election by subtly or not so subtly suppressing the vote of people you are afraid of is almost criminal.”

Republicans might revisit the mismatch issue or mount new legal challenges on Tuesday, but in the meantime, Brunner’s office is trying to preempt other problems. Controversial studies, including one that came under fire last week, have shown that the touch-screen voting machines in many of Ohio’s 88 counties are susceptible to security breaches and sometimes drop votes. Brunner was unsuccessful in convincing the GOP-dominated state legislature to mandate paper ballots, so instead, she is requiring polling places to minimize risk by instituting strict security measures and keeping a certain number of paper ballots on hand in case people want to use them or the machines fail. (She hopes the option will speed up long voting lines, too.)

Brunner has also issued directions to poll workers about, among other things, accepting provisional ballots, handling election observers, and facilitating crowds at some early voting sites by keeping the doors open on Sundays. Now, she is crossing her fingers--literally, she makes the gesture with both hands while sitting in her office--and wishing away worst-case scenarios. It’s all she and her staff can do: follow the rules they’ve set, and mend any leaks in their complex voting ship as soon as they appear.

With Ohio up for grabs, Brunner knows that millions of eyes will be watching to see how she reacts to whatever Tuesday brings. “It’s like you’re a caged lion that day,” Brunner says. “But this too shall pass.”

Seyward Darby is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

By Seyward Darby