Slimin' the City

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

Nevertheless, Bond and his Republican cohorts maintain that there was a premeditated plan to keep the polls open late and get unregistered voters to vote. They base it primarily on three things:

• Clay said on the day before the election that voters might have problems and that if they did, he and the Democratic Party would go to court to keep polls open late.

• Shortly after Judge Baker's decision at about 6 p.m., a message from the Rev. Jesse Jackson was phoned to voters, telling them the polls would be open until 10 p.m.

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.

• "Numerous witnesses" said unregistered voters were allowed to vote after the shutdown order from the appellate court.

Clay readily concedes that he and Democratic Party officials anticipated problems in the city. "We knew there were going to be problems, because we sent 60 people down to vote (absentee) one week before the election -- they were listed as inactive," he says. Clay is quite conscious of the fact that there have been reports nationwide of inner-city blacks' being denied the right to vote through purges of voter lists.

As for Jackson's taped phone message being "prepared in advance," one has only to listen to the actual message to make a judgment. Jackson tells recipients of his call that polls will remain open "until 10 p.m. in your neighborhood and until midnight downtown at the board of elections" -- precisely what Judge Baker ruled. It could only have been recorded after Baker's ruling.

Unless, of course, one were inclined to believe in a vast left-wing conspiracy -- which, in this case, would have to include both the reverend and the judge.

There remains the Republican allegation that unregistered voters ended up voting. They see it as a result of the "deliberate scheme," which led to intentional fraud. The Democratic allegation, meanwhile, is that thousands of registered voters found that their names were not on the list at polling places and either experienced long delays or were denied the right to vote. They see it as an inept and incompetent election-board operation.

There is some truth to both assertions -- not a whole lot, but some.

Kevin Coan, the Republican director of elections for the city, says the board had projected 70 percent turnout in the city; it got 68 percent, with about 129,000 of the city's 190,000 registered voters actually voting. The board deployed 1,500 voting machines at approximately 260 locations, says Coan, a lower voters-per-machine ratio than St. Louis County had. The board had conducted a canvass of voters in the spring, mailing cards to more than 200,000 voters. About 33,000 were returned by the U.S. Postal Service as "undeliverable," meaning that the recipient was not living at the address or had moved. Those 33,000 names were placed on an "inactive" list. Between spring and October, about 30,000 voters registered, many of them the same people placed on the "inactive" list.

Coan downplays problems with people experiencing delays. What he objects to is what Clay and his allies did, starting about midday. Clay came to the election-board offices downtown and -- after failing to get the board to approve voters who, says Coan, were not registered -- called in the city's circuit judges to authorize unregistered voters to vote. It was then, in the early afternoon, that Presiding Judge Michael Calvin and six other judges approved 233 people to vote.

On that point, Kimbrough agrees with Coan. Once the judges authorized voters to vote, the election board couldn't stop them from voting.

Then came the hearing before Judge Baker. The hearing, says Coan, "was a complete farce." Clay testified before the judge, as did his sister, Michelle Clay, an attorney who heads the NAACP Voter Education Fund, along with Steve Englehardt, Clay's assistant. All three, along with a fourth city resident, maintained that registered voters were having to wait hours to get clearance to vote and that the polls needed to remain open late to allow people to vote. They also gave Judge Baker signed affidavits from several voters who said they were registered but were told their names were not on the lists at the polling places. The way Coan sees it, Clay engineered the whole thing.

Baker says she based her decision on "the overwhelming weight of the testimony at the hearing from registered voters who had voted at the same polling places, who had not changed their addresses, who arrived at the polls in a timely fashion in the morning to vote and had been told that their names had been removed from the rolls." Baker adds that the election board was unprepared for the volume of voters and that the problem could have been alleviated, if not solved, had election judges been given the "inactive" voter lists instead of having to call the election-board offices downtown to verify the names on the "inactive" lists.

As for Bond's calling on the feds to investigate a planned scheme to commit fraud, Baker says: "I think Sen. Bond needs to get a grip. I don't think stupidity rises to the level of a federal investigation."

All rhetoric aside, a clearer view of the reality on Election Day in St. Louis comes from Michael Chance, a Republican election deputy who worked with a Democratic deputy overseeing the precincts in the 3rd Ward.

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