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A man to count on Featured

6:34am EDT May 12, 2003
Tom Jelepis, was a successful businessman and well-liked mayor of Bay Village who after two terms left the city running more smoothly and efficiently than it was when he came in.

So why leave all that to become director of the beleaguered Cuyahoga County Board of Elections — a position that has been the target of both the media and politicians?

Jelepis likes a challenge.

The native Clevelander came to his new position in July 2000, not long after a ballot shortage in a Democratic primary threw the department into the media spotlight.

His first order of business was to readjust a voter registration file that had not been purged in more than eight years and as result contained the names of more registered voters than there were citizens of age to vote in Cuyahoga County.

Jelepis may have left the mayor’s office but for some of his predecessors, the job at the Board of Elections has proven to be more political than holding office. SBN Magazine sat down with Jelepis to talk about the November election, electronic voting and why we will never have a “Florida” election.

Why leave the mayor's office in Bay Village and come to the Board of Elections, where you are a moving target for the media and other politicians.

It was a challenge that I couldn't resist. I was mayor for six-and-a-half years, and I had announced to anyone who cared that I wasn't running. I had always said that I would do two terms, and I did two terms. The city was running like a top. My staff was outstanding, and if you have a good staff, that is 90 percent of the battle.

Let's talk about what you walked into and how you changed things.

The first thing ... was improving communications around here and working together as a team, similar to what we did in Bay Village. We started cleaning up registration. Everything starts from registration. There hadn’t been a purge, I’ll call it a readjustment, of the registration in nine years.

You’re supposed to do it every year. And the ward had not done it in eight or nine years. That is taking out the deceased and those that have moved. As a result, we had more people that were registered to vote on the files than were actually of voting age in Cuyahoga County.

We had well over a million on the files. We took 170,000 off the list — you have to follow the law with two consecutive federal elections and this and that, but the bottom line was we had to get accurate files.

We also started reaching out to the different communities and getting out, getting the word out about exactly what we do, making ourselves more accessible to the public, working as a team and better communications. They are the basic management principles that are applicable in a city, a county agency or a business.

How was that different from previous years?

First we had a reorganization, and we put in a layer of management, to balance and support the higher level managers and give a little bit more accountability.

Why was this so important?

This is such a labor-intensive job, so you really have to have a lot of checks and balances. We put a lot of checks and balances into the system so that if we make a mistake, we can catch it before it has a domino effect on all the other departments.

Was this a problem in the past, this domino effect?

It had been, in the past. Like the lack of ballots, and they may have had enough ballots but they weren't distributed properly.

What does the board of elections do (beside maintain the list of registered voters?

We had 11 elections last year. You have the pre-election, you have the post-election work. We have to constantly update our records, we have to make sure people are properly registered.

We have to reconcile the unofficial results on election night with the certified results, which we usually certify 10 days later. And then you prepare for the next elections, and it is a constant pre and post. Game time is on Election Day, but there is a lot leading up to that.

Someone from our ballot department was up here today. She is ordering ballots, and over in the warehouse, we have people assembling ballots by hand. The process is so labor-intensive.

What about electronic voting? What's keeping us from electronic voting?

The House passed a bill last December and the Senate followed in April to come up with money for those counties and states that want to convert systems or improve technology. And this was all based on Florida of 2000.

But what is happening, now that time has moved on, the urgency to do this has decreased. So now House and the Senate are arguing over a few points and they can’t come up with a compromised bill.

The thing was this close to dying and being a dead bill, and then Florida happened again.

So now there is more of a sense of urgency to get this going, and if, in fact, they do come up with a compromised bill, we've been working on this for two-and-a-half years. We’ve had 11 elections using five different vendors where we have had electronic voting on Election Day.

How has it gone?

It has been incredibly well received in terms of every demographic. We’ve had it at Ward 7, Ward 20 in Cleveland, for the election of Lewis and Sweeney. We’ve had it in the suburbs’ outer ring, inner ring. The youth have accepted it and seniors.

Every demographic has welcomed it, and now all we have to do is get the funding. But the funding will be the easy part, if at the federal level they come up with 75 percent -- which is what they say they will -- the money that we will save that is punch card related and associated with printing costs and things like that, we can replace line item. It is very doable.

Where are we in the process?

We are at the RFP (request for proposal) stage, or more accurately, we will be releasing one in the foreseeable future and hopefully it will coincide with that compromised bill. Then we will pick a vendor and negotiate a contract.

You've tried different vendors for electronic voting. When we do go electronic, we’re not going to end up with the same problem Florida had this year, are we?

The whole system broke down in Florida, but they were mandated to have it in place for this last election. As a result, they didn’t train their poll workers or didn’t have time to adequately train their poll workers.

We have been doing this for two-and-a-half to three years now. Our due diligence is well underway, and that is why I don't think we are going to run into those problems.

I know some of those people in Florida, and they are good, hardworking people. You hate to see misery befall anyone, but we are learning and keeping our eyes open and watching from what is happening out there.

Is it getting more difficult to find poll workers?

We need on Election Day, 6,000 to 8,000 people, and that is a lot of people. It is always difficult getting people, but we have always been successful, and we are pleased and proud of the people that do give their time.

They get paid a nominal fee, but they do volunteer and they are very civic-minded. Without them, we couldn’t run an election.

It is becoming increasingly more difficult (to find poll workers), and that is why we need to get more people in the process. That is why I was at Bay Village High School last week talking to a class, and we registered 15 kids out there last week.

You’ve got to get the young men and women in there at an early age so that civic pride stays with them with respect to voting. It is difficult, but our staff here always gets the job done. It is a good team effort.

Can you register online to vote?

You still have to hand-deliver because you need a signature. You can print it out and send it. That makes it a little bit easier.

Has the motor voter bill helped with registration numbers?

It has made it easier for people to register and it has increased registration. Not necessarily the turnout, but it has increased registration.

What have you done to help increase turnout?

We are out there talking to everyone. We had a television show at one point for my first year-and-a-half where we talked about election issues. Just trying to educate people on the process.

How is this different from being mayor?

When I came down here, I had always dealt with the election processes from the other side of the table, as a candidate. But this thing is the toughest thing I have ever done because it is so labor intensive. And when you have that sort of labor-intense work, there is so much room for error, there are so many uncontrollables. On Election Day we have 6,000 to 8,000 people who work for us maybe two or three times a year.

And we have training, but really you can’t expect anyone to remember every darn thing from one election to another. There are a lot of uncontrollables.

When I came here, we had some 286s (computers), we upgraded them, and now we have some Pentiums and we are trying to get into the 21st century. We have really undergone a technology improvement in the past one-and-a-half, two years.

How long will you remain director?

A director here lasts two to four years usually, so that is the lifespan. It is almost like a baseball manager. You come in, you bring your ideas and after a few years ... it is like being mayor ... somebody else gets their swings at the plate. Hopefully they are ideas that improve the situation.

Any predictions on the turnout of November's election?

It is a big election. You have the governor’s race — I think we will have a 40 percent turnout this election — 40 percent of registered voters. You also have the county commissioner and some judicial races that are pretty big, and the control of the Cleveland schools. And Issue 1, that for first-time drug offenders, you should give treatment as opposed to incarceration.

Forty percent. Are you being a tad optimistic?

You've heard our percentages (in Cuyahoga County), it was about 20 to 25 percent. Then when we cleaned up the registration files and took off 170,000 names of people who had died or had moved and those percentages increased dramatically. The apathy probably wasn't quite as bad in Cuyahoga County as people thought because the registration file weren't accurate.

But apathy does exist. Back in the ’60s with Kennedy and Nixon, if I’m not mistaken, the turnout was like 80 percent or so. Historically, every elections since then, it has been dropping.

Now it is 50 percent if you are lucky. I think it is just a reflection of society.

Everyone is just running around and just trying to put food on the table. Even in two-parent households, both parents are most likely working.

And it is not a convenient day.

It is not a convenient day, either. Not really apathy but not having the time or ability to get to the polls.

Which do you like better, being on the ballot or controlling the ballot?

I know I’m not going to be down here forever. I knew that coming in, but it was a challenge I couldn't turn down. If I could stay long enough to be part of the electronic voting process, that would be very rewarding. It will revolutionize how we vote here in this county for years to come.

Being mayor was a wonderful experience. But the team ran the show. I’m still relatively young, and it is not to say that Bay Village doesn’t have challenges and issues.

Does being an ex-politician give you insight on the whole process?

I think definitely you have to know the political lay of the land. It helps tremendously.

The Board of Elections is like an offensive lineman. You get recognized by the media if you get caught for holding or you're off sides or something. You don’t run too many 80 yard touchdowns.

But the fact of the matter is, we are working well, and having held office, I have a real good relationship with the mayor and with the office-holders of this county, who, in turn, know the ward leaders. It all gets back to communication. I think our communication is very well developed.

If there is a problem somewhere, the mayor is not afraid to call me. That is where I think having some political experience taking the opportunity to develop these relationships comes into play.

Any predictions for the elections?

I predict that we are going to do a great job and the staff is going to come through with flying colors.

That's not what I meant. Any predictions on who will win?

Nope, I'm staying neutral on that one.