Slimin' the City

When it comes to Election Day problems in St. Louis, the politicians' rhetoric doesn't match the reality

Shortly after the polls closed on Election Night, the statewide Republican "victory" party hummed along at the Marriott West in Town & Country. It was the lull between the closing of the polls and the trickling in of any meaningful results, and the buzz was all about the fiasco with the elections in the city of St. Louis. Earlier in the day, Democrats in the city of St. Louis had marched into state circuit court demanding that the polls in the city of St. Louis be kept open until 10 p.m. because hundreds, if not thousands, of voters in the city of St. Louis were being denied their right to vote by an incompetent election commission that had screwed up voter lists. And a circuit judge in the city of St. Louis had consented.

At a primarily white suburban Republican affair, it didn't need to be said that most of the protesters, as well as the politician who led the court fight and the judge who ruled, were black Democrats.

Then U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond stepped up to the podium.

Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond went ballistic after learning that a judge had ordered that the polls remain open.
Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond went ballistic after learning that a judge had ordered that the polls remain open.

"Can you believe?" he thundered into the microphone. "Can you believe that anybody would say that a Democratic election board, appointed by a Democratic governor in a Democratic city, dominated by Democrats, was trying to keep Democrats from voting?" He then straightened himself up and roared, "That's an outrage!" Then he began banging the podium with his right fist. "That is -- thump! -- absolutely -- thump! thump! -- an outrage!" he bellowed. The crowd, predictably, went wild.

This histrionic highlight was followed by a less effective but very much on-message rant by Missouri Republican Party chairman Ann Wagner: "We are not going to let the city of St. Louis play by a different set of rules than the rest of this great state!"

Given the heightened passions of an election night, one might excuse Bond and Wagner's shrill emotional pitch. By Thursday, of course, things had changed. The Republicans had lost all the statewide offices except secretary of state. But although Bond's voice had softened, his message hadn't. He announced that he had asked the U.S. Attorney and the FBI to investigate what he called "a major criminal enterprise designed to defraud voters" -- in the city of St. Louis, of course.

In his letters to the two federal agencies, Bond wrote that although the circuit judge's order to keep the polls open until 10 p.m. was overturned at the appellate level by 7:45 p.m., "there is abundant evidence that the appellate order was ignored and widespread voter fraud occurred throughout the city of St. Louis." He wrote of a "deliberate scheme" planned in advance so unregistered voters could vote illegally: "There is reason to believe that collusion existed to commit voter fraud and voter fraud occurred on a wide scale throughout the city of St. Louis."

Unlike his election-night tirade, his letters did not mention the words "Democrat" and "Democratic." Nor did they make any reference to "blacks" or "African-Americans." Needless to say, in Mr. Bond's milieu, the words "city of St. Louis" convey all that quite well.

Talking of words, let's try separating the rhetoric from the reality.

First, let's put to rest Bond's misstatement about the Board of Election Commissioners in St. Louis. It isn't a "Democratic election board." By law, two of the four commissioners are Democrats, the other two Republicans. Of the 28 employees, 14 are from each party. Yes, Bond was right -- and redundant -- when he said, "in a Democratic city, dominated by Democrats." In last week's elections, Democratic candidates beat their Republican opponents by a ratio of roughly 4-to-1 in the city.

But Bond's primary thesis -- that it makes no sense that Democrats would prevent Democrats from voting -- is easily refuted. Half the board is Republican, but nothing suggests party affiliation had anything to do with problems voters were having. All you had to do was turn to your TV on Election Night to see angry voters complaining of delays and denial of voting rights. Here at the Riverfront Times, at least two employees were registered and had not moved since voting in the last election but found at their usual polling places that their names were not on the list. This started the interminable process of election judges' trying to get through on the phone lines to the election-board headquarters downtown. Some voters, figuring they'd save time by going to the downtown office themselves, found long lines there as well.

When the Democrats went to court, led by state Sen. (and congressional candidate) William "Lacy" Clay Jr., and requested that the polls be kept open late, the election board opposed the request. And when Circuit Judge Evelyn Baker -- appointed by Bond himself in 1983 -- consented to keeping the polls open until 10 p.m., the election board favored a reversal of her decision. "We went to the appellate court to close the polls down," says an exasperated Floyd Kimbrough, the election-board chairman, a Democrat and an ally of Clay's father, retiring Congressman Bill Clay.

Kimbrough disputes both the Republican allegation of fraud and the Democratic allegation that thousands of registered voters were denied the right to vote. He calls each allegation "an outright lie."

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