MAYVILLE - There will be a new face in the Chautauqua County Election Commissioner's Office in January after Terry Niebel, Republican election commissioner, announced his retirement Tuesday after more than 28 years in office.
''After careful consideration and much discussion with my family, I have decided that now is the time to take a different direction in my life,'' Niebel said. ''Therefore, I will not seek another term as Republican election commissioner and announce my retirement from this position effective Dec. 31, 2008.''
A Sheridan resident, Niebel recently began his 29th year with the election board and has been answering phones longer than any election commissioner in the history of Chautauqua County, surpassing the second-longest serving election commissioner, Luke Fay, R-Portland, who served 23 years.
In April 1981, Niebel won a four-way race for election commissioner at a full Republican Committee meeting, garnering more than 60 percent of the vote for a first-ballot win, and at 28 years of age, becoming the youngest Republican election commissioner in the state. He has been unopposed for his last six four-year terms.
Niebel worked for the county before becoming an election commissioner and said he learned something very important.
''When I first started working for the county I had a supervisor, June Land, who reminded us that we were public servants and that we were to treat everyone with courtesy and respect - a lesson I tried to always remember,'' Niebel said. ''Later, when I became election commissioner I tried to be fair in all matters coming before the election board. In the area of the petition process, candidates sometimes don't agree with the decisions that are reached, but hopefully they know that their arguments have been listened to, and that the decisions I've made were based on the facts and the requirements of the state Election Law.''
Since Niebel began, a number of significant changes have occurred at the board, including computerization of office files and election-night reporting.
''It wasn't too many years ago that all the election results were tabulated on calculators with a dozen volunteers from the Finance and Tax departments supplementing Election Board workers. The cumulative results from all 20 election districts would be posted in the hallways, just outside the election's office,'' he said. ''Nowadays, results are telephoned or faxed into the Election Board, where they are immediately keypunched into the computer, and in real time put out over the Internet. People can obtain election results via their own computer from the convenience of home. You no longer have the excitement of candidates, their supporters, and radio and newspaper people milling around in anticipation of the results.''
The biggest change Niebel said he has seen is still on its way. In 2009, the most significant change in 100 years of elections will occur, when all mechanical-lever voting machines will be replaced.
''In my opinion, the mechanical voting machine is the most dependable and cost-effective election device ever made,'' Niebel said. ''Unfortunately, the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), while not specifically prohibiting mechanical voting machines, only provided funds for the purchase of electronic or optical scan voting machines.''
After much research and testing, Chautauqua County, along with most of Western New York, decided to go with the Sequoia optical scan machine. In all, Chautauqua County will spend $1.3 million for the purchase, testing and training associated with implementation of the new machines. Federal and state money will pay for 95 percent of the cost.
Niebel sees two challenges for the Election Board - successfully training board staff members and poll workers, and also teaching voters how to use the new machines.
''A certain amount of apprehension goes with any change. I know that the Election Board is up to the task and I'm confident there won't be any falloff in voter turnout,'' he said. ''People in this county view voting as their civic responsibility. They consistently turn out in higher percentages than the state and national averages. I'm sure they will continue to do so. I would like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who have supported me and offered your wisdom, guidance and friendship throughout the years. It has been an honor to serve you.''
The county Republican Committee will likely nominate a successor to Niebel at its September meeting.