July 31, 2014

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New voting chief gains high praise

CLEVELAND — The new elections director in Ohio’s largest county won over critics of the historically messy board in a few short months, but her biggest challenge will be next year’s presidential election.
Jane Platten has been interim director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections since February, when Michael Vu resigned under pressure after three years. She is being sworn in to remove “interim” from her title this week.
Platten’s four predecessors since 2000 have left under intense scrutiny or because of scandals. Platten aims to improve the board’s image one task at a time. She started by running a crisp primary in May.
“We had to prove to people that we could do it,” Platten said. “And after that happened, the lights went back on in the building. We began to have faith.”
Her biggest challenge is next year’s presidential election. The 2004 election was marred by machine foulups and long lines at the polls when 68 percent of the county’s 1 million-plus voters turned out.
Platten, 39, has gained the confidence of election watchers.
“She’s youthful but deeply experienced,” said former county Commissioner Tim McCormack, her one-time boss. “She has been in the crucible of a lot of decisions over the years. She is well prepared for this.”
Bob Bennett, the state’s Republican Party chief and a former elections board member, agreed.
“I’m a big Jane Platten fan. She stepped in and did well. She’s a good choice.”
Platten graduated in 1986 from the all-girls Magnificat High School in suburban Rocky River. She earned a degree in English at John Carroll University, graduating in 1990, then worked in the Cuyahoga County auditor’s office for six years and moved on to the commissioners’ office.
In March 2004, she moved to the Board of Elections as the head of administrative services, including personnel, purchasing and community outreach. Last year, she was chosen to handle poll worker recruitment and training.
She became the interim director when Vu was forced out after a difficult transition from punch cards to electronic voting.
In May, Platten presided over her first election and in contrast to the county’s history, every polling place opened on time, and the vote was counted by midnight.
“She brought accountability to the office,” said Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, who demanded the resignations of the board in the spring after two elections workers were convicted of rigging the 2004 recount.
Brunner said a politically ambitious interim chief would have pushed to become the director. Instead, Platten simply prepared for the primary. It wasn’t until it was over that she sought the job.
“I had to prove to myself first that I could do this,” Platten said. “I had to prove to the community that I can do it. But the people in the office regained their confidence with that election, and I wanted to build on that.”
The board chose her from among four finalists, and she was a surprise choice. Some people pulled for former Cleveland safety director William Denihan, 70, who is known for turning around troubled agencies.
In the coming weeks, the board will hire a deputy director and a number of people for her staff. She said she will count on consensus to guide her and her staff.
“It’s so that people like my mom and dad can go to vote with confidence and know that the privilege of voting will be handled correctly,” she said. “To many people, voting is sacred.”