The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 9:18 am

Vote of confidence

If results from 2011 municipal elections are any indication, fewer than 13 percent of Allen County’s registered voters will go to the polls May 5. 

But don’t blame Beth Dlug, the county’s director of elections. She would be thrilled to see more residents participate, and she and her staff are ready and eager to help them.

"It’s what’s on the ballot and what people get excited about," Dlug said. "The only thing I can do is make sure everyone knows the process is fair and accurate. I don’t want anyone to think that we’re doing something nefarious that would make them cynical about what we do here. That’s our No. 1 job. Fair, honest, transparent – that’s the way Allen County runs elections."

Next month’s contested races for mayor, city clerk and council in Fort Wayne, New Haven and elsewhere should create some excitement for voters, but registration numbers (see related story) suggest they haven’t.

The county’s top election administrator, however, is always excited about elections, which is how she came to be appointed to her post six years ago.

"I worked on campaigns for quite awhile, and I loved Election Day," she said. "You work so hard and you do all of this stuff, and then on Election Day it’s like opening up a big present – you either get the booby prize or you win."

A smooth election is the prize she seeks these days, including one free of ballot errors. When votes are cast for precinct committeemen and convention delegates, the number of ballot configurations for 338 precincts across Allen County can surpass 200. In the 2014 primary election, there were about 250 different ballots.

"There’s nothing worse than getting a candidate or an issue wrong," she said. "That’s my biggest nightmare. The process of determining who gets what ballot is huge. I didn’t realize that before I had this job, because you go and you vote and the people you expect to be on your ballot are there."

Jack Morris, a Fort Wayne attorney and Democrat, has participated in local elections as a candidate and party official. He would prefer a member of his own party in the post, of course, but he praised Dlug’s professionalism.

"I think Beth Dlug does a great job," he said. "We might have some disagreements, but if I approached her with a concern, I know she would listen.

"In general, the actual (election administration) is done in a reasonably fair way," Morris said. "Whether or not there is sufficient advocacy for good changes is another question. I do think there are a lot of improvements we can make to encourage voters, but much of that is probably outside (the election board’s) ability to institute."

A perfect job fit

Even as a campaign volunteer, Dlug’s work gravitated to the mechanics of the election process, including work with the election office to gather precinct-level information for candidates. Meanwhile, the Fort Wayne native was honing other skills professionally. A paralegal by training, her first job in county government was as a law librarian for Allen Superior Court. Dlug then worked in the prosecutor’s office for 16 years, in child support and then the criminal division. 

"I was always interested in the technology part of it," she said. "So I approached (former prosecutor) Bob Gevers about moving into that area. We did a lot of groundwork while I was there to move into the new Odyssey (court management software) program."

In 2008, election director Pam Finlayson announced she was retiring after 13 years on the job. Dlug – realizing it fit well with her professional skills and her interest in elections – sought the post. She was chosen by the three-member election board – a Democrat and two Republicans. 

Finlayson administered the 2008 election, which drew more than 152,000 voters, and allowed her successor to ease into the job in 2009, when the office administered only a referendum limited to voters in the Southwest Allen County Schools district.

Dlug credits Finlayson with setting a sound foundation for election operations.

"When I look at the contributions she made  – getting the voting machines that we have – that was crucial to how we continue to do things now. There are a lot of voting machines out there that use a lot of paper, and they are so much more expensive than the voting machines we use. She did her due diligence."

Election improvements

A certified election administrator through the national Election Center, Dlug continues to look for ways to improve local election administration. Her efforts now are focused on electronic poll books, which replace paper records with voter information available digitally. They are necessary to move away from neighborhood-based precincts so records can be accessed wherever voters might choose to cast their ballot.

"It’s a step in the technology arena towards vote centers," she said. "We are hoping County Council will provide us with funds to get electronic poll books, and if we can do that, we want to get them in place for the general election. I would really like to get it done this year rather than trying to implement it in a presidential election year."

Dlug said her biggest concern about vote centers is having locations that can handle enough people. 

"If anyone can vote anywhere they want, and one church, for example, would be very popular, you could have massive lines at this one polling place," she said. "I haven’t been able to work this out, but the electronic poll books should help us figure out when people are going to locations to vote."

That’s information election officials have never been able to capture. It would allow more precise planning for vote center locations.

Dlug also is interested in moving some polling locations back to schools. They were moved out about a decade ago because of student safety concerns, but she said she’s had encouragement from at least one area school board member who noted that security measures have improved, allowing rooms where voting might take place secure from student areas. 

"When I was a kid going to school, I saw the people going to vote, and it was a civics lesson," Dlug said. "I registered to vote at school." 

The civics lesson isn’t reaching younger people – at least in state and local elections, but the elections director wants people to know her office is committed to making participation as easy as possible.

 "We’ve got all sorts of ways people can vote," Dlug said. "You can vote by mail. If you’re confined to your home, we can come there with a traveling board. If you can vote early, we’re going to have satellites for the general election, where people can vote closer to home. We’re constantly working to improve those ways that people can vote, but in the end, it has to be that civic engagement from the voters themselves."

Karen Francisco is editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.

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