Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Junk Brunner ’78
Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Junk Brunner ’78, seen here in her Columbus, Ohio, office, received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in May for challenging the reliability of electronic voting systems to ensure voting integrity in Ohio.

For the Record-Ohio’s first female secretary of state, Jennifer Junk Brunner ’78 uses her sociology background to establish a new social health index.

By Andy Resnick ’97



Serving as Ohio’s chief elections official is a high-profile position for Jennifer Junk Brunner ’78 — Ohio’s first female secretary of state — especially during this presidential election year.

Before Ohio’s March primary, Brunner regularly saw her name in the news and her face on TV. The New York Times practically camped out on her office doorstep with questions about Ohio’s electronic voting machines.

However, although elections may produce the most media coverage for her office, overseeing votes is not her only duty.

In fact, she sees her role as much broader.

As the person responsible for the state’s public records, encompassing everything from trademarks to licensing ministers to perform marriages, Brunner can influence Ohio’s future through the types of records gathered and distributed.

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Junk Brunner ’78
Jennifer Brunner meets constituents at the Ohio State Fair.

So she is using her background in sociology to call attention to what she classifies as “quality of life” issues: suicide rates, teenage pregnancy, and the uninsured, with the hope that the Ohio Legislature and the governor will consider her “social health index” when making budget and policy decisions.

Such an index would help “define what is a thriving community, what is a stable community, or what is a community in crisis,” she says. “If we showed improvement in life quality of our citizens over time, it should be something to help attract new jobs to Ohio because of the quality of workers that [employers will] have.”

Compiling the index — the state’s first — is her way of combining her current role with issues she began to feel passionate about while a student in college.

“Had it not been for the sociology background that I gained from Miami, we wouldn’t be talking about this,” says Brunner, 51, who worked as an elections lawyer and judge before being elected secretary of state in 2006.

Brunner didn’t start out a sociology major. The Columbus native first had designs on becoming an English teacher.

Her writing made an impression on then-Miami teaching assistant Rich Raymond PhD ’78, who now heads the English department at Mississippi State.

“I remember Jennifer as a thoughtful reader and writer, one who understood that her essays represented much more than assignments written for her teacher, that her essays responded to great writers, engaged their conversation.”

Brunner, in turn, credits Raymond for introducing her to Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, about an Indian man on a journey toward enlightenment. Her paperback copy from college sits on a table in her office, which overlooks downtown Columbus.

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Junk Brunner ’78
Jennifer and Governor Ted Strickland greet a constituent at a Statehouse event.

“Thirty years ago, no one could have predicted that Jennifer Junk would become Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, but Ms. Junk surely seemed destined for success,” Raymond says. “Think about it. Who better to serve in such high office than a woman who understands the beauty but also the utility of language, a woman who uses language to understand the human heart and to solve human problems.”

It was during a freshman orientation lecture by now-retired Miami sociology professor Robert Sherwin that she began to realize sociology struck a chord with her.

Fascinated by Sherwin’s talk, which he delivered from the top of a desk, Brunner signed up for his class.

In that introductory lecture, Sherwin recalls, he explained that people of varying backgrounds would have different reactions to his speaking from a desktop. While Miami’s president might think “Sherwin was nuts,” he explained to the incoming freshmen, the president of a foreign university might be impressed that a professor would deliver a lecture “from on high.”

Brunner was hooked.

“The more I took sociology it just clicked with me because I loved trying to figure out why people do what they do,” she says.

She began to study the “interplay of human beings” while working with senior citizens in southwest Ohio through the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami.

“What I learned from those experiences was a lot about dealing with people, the patience that it takes.” Raising three children also contributed to her lessons about people and patience.

Needing to find a job while her husband, Rick, attended law school, Brunner put her social work aside and started as an aide in the Ohio Senate. Then she took her turn at law school, earning a JD from Capital University.

After serving as legislative counsel to Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s secretary of state at the time and now a U.S. senator, she founded a private law practice specializing in election issues. In 1997 she became a member of the Franklin County Board of Elections, and in 2000 she won election as a judge in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

Once on the bench, she capitalized on her passion for social issues and started an adult felony drug court. “The one thing I had missed until I became a judge was the social work aspect of dealing with people on an everyday basis.”

Her current position enables Brunner to combine all her past work experience into one job.

“When I realized as the keeper of the records in the secretary of state’s office that I could do that, the old sociology kicked back in and I said, ‘OK, that’s how I bridge what I was doing in the trenches social work-wise to running elections.’ ”

Representatives from her office have been traveling around Ohio to talk with people who work in social services, business, government, and labor to learn what factors they believe the social health index should measure, says Brunner, who has hired a sociologist to head the project. The results should be ready next year.

“If you look historically at this office, the secretary of state used to keep records like, ‘How many sheep are in Clark County?’ So, this really isn’t that far off what has been done in the past,” she says, explaining that her office is still collecting data on issues that have a direct influence on citizens’ daily lives.

Sherwin commends Brunner’s decision to create the index. He says it should help those in power “recognize the enormous diversity between the haves and the have-nots.”

“That a politician is doing it is very impressive to me,” says the professor, who taught at Miami from 1962 to 2004. “My personal feeling is politicians are generally woefully ignorant of social data.”

He doesn’t seem to include Brunner, who believes one of her strengths is taking multiple viewpoints into account when making decisions.

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Junk Brunner ’78
Jennifer Brunner talks to new Cuyahoga County Board of Elections members Inajo Davis Chappell (seated left), Jeff Hastings (center), and Eben “Sandy” McNair at the board office in Cleveland May 7, 2007.

“When I worked as a judge and I conducted a trial, it was with the idea of looking at it from the jurors’ point of view so that they could do the job for the public that they’re supposed to do,” she says. “I try to sort of be the alter ego for the voters in anticipating what they need because they’re doing the very important job of making decisions for their community.”

Which is not to say Brunner has managed to escape controversy. A secretary of state is, after all, a politician.

The Democrat has faced extensive criticism over the way she has overhauled the Republican-led elections boards in Cuyahoga and Summit counties. Some county elections officials have vigorously disagreed with changes she has proposed in the wake of a $1.9 million study last fall that concluded Ohio’s electronic voting machines are vulnerable to tampering.

Brunner advocates replacing the electronic touch-screen voting machines used in 57 Ohio counties, and the optical-scan systems used in the other 31, with paper ballots.

She isn’t set against electronic voting. She just believes it was implemented too quickly in Ohio, before kinks could be worked out with the programming to ensure accurate counts.

“Electronic voting machines create wonderful opportunities, as long as they can get them right,” says Brunner, who voted by paper ballot in the state’s March 4 primary. “I would say for the future, if a lot of the problems we found in our study could be addressed, I think there’s a great potential.”

She says she is taking the criticism in stride, having learned as a judge that it is important to stay impartial.

“I hope we’ll find more bipartisan cooperation, because there’s not a Republican or a Democratic way to run elections.”

Andy Resnik ’97 is a Columbus-based journalist.

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