CLEVELAND (AP) - The embattled elections chief in the state's most populous county resigned Tuesday, ending a tense term that thrust Cuyahoga County into the national spotlight as it weathered a rough transition from punch-card to electronic voting.
The elections board announced the decision by executive director Michael Vu after a nearly two-hour closed-door meeting. Under Vu, the county had a botched primary election and saw the convictions of two workers who mishandled the 2004 presidential recount.
The resignation is effective March 1, and Vu has agreed to stay on through June as a consultant to help the board as it looks for and trains a new director.
The board, which oversees elections in the largely Democratic-voting county with more than 1 million registered voters, has formed a search committee to find Vu's replacement.
Vu, 30, was hired at about $119,000 a year in 2003 to take over the largest and arguably most problematic elections system in the bellwether state during a hard-fought and close presidential campaign.
In November 2004, Cuyahoga was among the counties with long lines and complaints over provisional ballots. The election ended with Ohio giving President Bush the electoral votes needed to narrowly win the White House over Democratic U.S. Sen. John Kerry.
Vu said it was his decision to resign, based in part on his realization that the board wanted new leadership for the 2008 election.
The decision was mutual, he said.
"The time is right to turn the leadership of the board over to new hands," Vu said. "By leaving now there will be ample time to find a new director and to provide that person with the time necessary to plan for a successful 2008 presidential election year."
After the meeting, board chairman Bob Bennett, also the leader of the state Republican Party, said the board realized that Vu had a tough job, especially the transition to electronic voting from punch cards.
The board is happy Vu is staying for a few more months as a consultant, Bennett said. He said Vu will continue to collect his director's salary during that time.
Gwendolyn Dillingham, a Republican who was the board's assistant director, also is leaving.
Before Vu's appointment, the county had a history of troubles, including absentee ballots invalidated because they were counted twice, shortages of ballots, misplaced ballots, votes cast by unregistered voters and voters who were not told of a change in their polling places.
Under his watch, problems continued.
Last May's primary, the first attempt at electronic voting in the county, was marred by poll workers who were not prepared to operate the machines, some poll workers who didn't show up to work and vote-holding memory cards that were misplaced or lost.
And last month, two elections board workers were convicted of illegally rigging the 2004 presidential election recount so they could avoid a more thorough review of the votes.
Vu defended those workers and their decision to pick ahead of time the ballots they would count in what was supposed to be a random sample. He said the workers followed longtime procedures and did nothing wrong.
Vu said he is proud of improvements in how elections occur in Cuyahoga County.
"Of course, there's a lot that of things that would have been done differently, in hindsight," Vu said.
The recent convictions stand out as a major disappointment, he said. A special prosecutor has said he will seek information from the two women convicted of election law violations to try and determine who instructed them to perform the recount as they did.
"That is something that is still ongoing and there's not much I can say about it," Vu said.
During the board meeting Tuesday, Bennett announced that those two employees, Jacqueline Maiden, elections coordinator, and ballot manager Kathleen Dreamer have been fired. Maiden's separation pay is $27,096 and Dreamer's is $8,382.
A Democrat who learned the elections business in Republican-dominated Utah, Vu has a black belt in martial arts and has a political science degree from the University of Utah. He worked for seven years for the Salt Lake County Elections Division in various administrative and research roles.
Bennett said that, although there were troubles, Vu successfully oversaw changes that led to a general election in November with few big problems as a new governor and U.S. senator were elected.
Vu said his goal was to lead the board through the transition from "a punch card world of hanging chads to the new technology of touch-screen voting."