Elections chief Gerry Lewis set to retire

By Mike Sever Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Gerry Lewis says that "it seems like yesterday" that she started working for the Portage County Board of Elections. Actually, it's been a lot longer. Her association with the county voting office started in 1961, when she went to work part-time getting poll workers and seeing that the tally boards were in place for election night. Lewis, who has been director or deputy director of the elections board since 1976, is getting ready to turn over the reins in less than two months. She announced this week that she would not be seeking a 12th two-year term with the board. Lois Enlow has been nominated to succeed Lewis as head of the office. The board of elections will vote on the changes, which are then ratified by the Ohio secretary of state. In her years overseeing county elections Lewis has seen major changes in voting in Portage County. The biggest, she said, was the switch from paper ballots to punch cards, which happened in 1974. "We would have the whole second floor of the courthouse taken over to count and record results," she recalled. Other improvements, such as computerizing registration files, and digitizing voter signatures so they could be quickly verified at the polls, were major accomplishments. But there were a few major glitches along the way, including one major disaster that she still regrets. In the late 1970s, the first election after the local board did its own ballot computer programming was a disaster. Incorrect coding resulted in winners and losers being switched. And the error wasn't discovered until the next day, after newspapers had reported the results. "That was the worst thing that ever happened to me. That was devastating," she said. But on reflection, she said, "I think that maybe in the long run it was good because it showed we weren't afraid to admit our mistakes." Other glitches along the way are more humorous in retrospect. Lewis recalled the time a volunteer in a registration drive loaded up all the materials in her car, then drove away with the box of new registration forms on the roof of her car. The box was run over by a bus before it was recovered. Or the time a poll worker decided to stop for his night class before turning in election ballots. "We had to go to the university to find him," Lewis said. Lewis recalled how she started working part-time with the elections office in 1961. "My original job was to get the booth workers (for election day) and the counting board" to tally up election results. She went to full time about 1974 and was named director in 1976 to fill an unexpired term. Active in Republican politics for many years, she will continue to serve as Portage County Republican chairwoman. She has traveled to several of the GOP national conventions, starting in 1976 in Kansas City when she was an alternate for Gerald Ford. In 1984 she was a delegate for Ronald Reagan at the Dallas convention, and 1988 went to New Orleans as a delegate for George Bush. "I'll be anxious to work on the governor's campaign (for U.S. Senate)," she said. "I really respect and admire (Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate) Bob Taft." Lewis also chairs the state elections committee that reviews election equipment. Last year, she was presented with a Pinnacle Award in recognition of her exemplary service to the state's elections system. Born in Edinburg, Lewis graduated from Southeast High School and then studied business at Bohecker's Business School in Ravenna. After years in Ravenna, she and her husband moved back to Edinburg seven years ago, back to her grandparents' house "and the same land my father farmed. My father and mother lived in the farmhouse next door on the McConnell farm for 60 years." The first order of retirement business for Lewis and her husband, Trevor, will be a Mexican vacation. It will be a first-time visit for them. Trevor retired in September. "He's getting all the (home fix-up) jobs out of the way, and then we can go play," Lewis said. "Some friends of ours wanted to go down and check it out," she said. In preparation, they are taking Spanish lessons and practice every night. How are the lessons going? "Terrible," she smiled. "There's a restaurant in Stow we go to. There's a waiter there who speaks Spanish. He's learning English and we're learning Spanish." Trouble is, Lewis studied French years ago "and all these French words keep popping up in Spanish," she laughed. Travel has always been an interest, along with golf and gardening. She also has four grandchildren to keep her busy. "There's a lot of places I'd like to go and we've never been able to travel in September," she said, because that is the start of the election season. Lewis says she'll miss the people at the Board of Elections most. "This is pretty much family," Lewis said. "Everybody in here loves people. Nobody every just quits _ they retire." She noted that Agnes Whinney, who retired 14-years ago, still comes back to work part-time. Lewis is also proud that voters coming to the office counter can't determine the party affiliation of the staff, which is split evenly Republicans and Democrats. She and Deputy Director Glenda Enders, a Democrat, have worked together since 1977, trading the directorship when the party holding office as secretary of state would change. Enders was director for 12 years, and Lewis deputy director. "We pretty much have done the same things whether we are deputy director or director. We both have the same work ethic and the same philosophy, and that is we don't play politics in here," she said.

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