Bartholomew County’s voter registration and election supervisor got more votes than anyone else.

When judged against her peers across 92 Hoosier counties, Shari Lentz was named Indiana Voter Registration Employee of the Year during a recent statewide conference in Indianapolis.

“I didn’t even know I had been nominated when I got there,” Lentz said.

In his nomination, Bartholomew County Clerk Jay Phelps gave Lentz, 52, considerable credit for a smoother-than-expected transition from the precinct voting system in Bartholomew County to the current use of voting centers.

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The Indiana Voter Registration Association presents the award annually to an individual employed in election offices who goes above and beyond in their duties, as well as displaying leadership, Phelps said.

Phelps, who held Lentz’s job prior to succeeding Tami Hines as county clerk in January, wrote in a nomination letter that his successor excelled significantly throughout 2014 during what he described as “the ever-so-chaotic primary and general elections under precinct voting.”

The biggest example of that chaos occurred in May of last year, when the Bartholomew County Election Board found itself struggling to fill 27 poll worker spots in a 24-hour span, Lentz said.

Several people who had signed up to work dropped out at the last minute, which “really created a headache for us,” she said.

Another challenge emerged when Hines insisted Lentz and her current deputy, Taylor Seegraves, take over some duties normally handled by Phelps in 2014 because his name was on the ballot and she wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety, Lentz said.

County elected officials in February 2014 approved the concept of using voting centers, which allows residents to cast their ballots at their choice of location, rather than be restricted to one assigned polling place.

While small concerns were expressed, there was an almost-Orwellian fear that some “Big Brother” figure would know instantly how every resident voted on the Internet-dependent system, Phelps said last May.

In an effort to negate worries, both Phelps and Lentz began working during their off-hours to educate residents about voting centers.

Besides speaking to organizations and service clubs, the two utilized traditional and social media, as well as mail notices and an Internet video presentation to get voters acquainted and comfortable with the changes.

“We felt making voters aware of the change was key,” Lentz said.

In addition, the eight voting centers set up in May were twice the number required under Indiana law. Lentz also oversaw a significant expansion of early voting times and locations last spring compared with earlier elections.

To avoid errors, election officials in a dozen other Indiana counties with voting centers were interviewed to discover what worked and what did not, Lentz said.

As it turned out, 3,117 voters cast early ballots during this year’s primary election — four times as many as the 2011 city primary election.

“After Election Day had passed, we received nothing but positive and raving comments about the new voting centers,” Phelps wrote in his nomination letter. “It was by far the easiest and most stress-free election I have ever been a part of.”

The only gaffe Lentz recalls from last spring was when voting center promotional signs were put up in residential yards, prompting a few residents to erroneously assume they would cast their ballots in somebody’s house.

“There was a lot of confusion to clear up after that happened,” Lentz said with a laugh. “But we were just trying to do everything we could.”

Both Phelps and Lentz say they will strive to avoid mistakes when they begin a second round of voting center promotions for county residents in preparation of the 2016 presidential election.

Although Lentz only began working in the voter registration office in 2013, she came into the job with considerable experience as a poll worker and quickly learned a variety of tasks ranging from voter list maintenance to city council redistricting, Phelps wrote.

“There was no doubt in making her the supervisor of the office once I was elected clerk,” wrote Phelps, who specifically stated Lentz always treats people with dignity, sincerity and respect.

While Lentz said she appreciates the honor, she is quick to point out the efforts and contributions of Phelps and her two deputies, Seegraves and Dustin Renner, who she said are equally important.

“They are dedicated, great with technology, and they really love their county,” Lentz said. “I think we all realize the responsibilities of our positions, so everyone works hard to do the best we can.”

Shari Lentz

Shari Beck Lentz

Position: Bartholomew County supervisor of voter registration and elections.

Residence: County Road 750N in Flatrock Township

Age: 52

Education: Graduated from Hauser High School in 1981. Received an associate degree in medical assistant from Ivy Tech in 1983.

Experience: Worked in personnel at the former Como Plastics Inc. in Columbus. Spent 13 years as a substitute teacher in the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp.

Family: Married to Bartholomew County Council member Bill Lentz for 32 years; they have two adult children, Aaron and Ashley, and one grandson.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.