Dead Man Voting

St. Louis elections are a national joke. Trouble is, it's not funny anymore.

Though he came closer than any Republican mayoral candidate in more than a generation, Jerry Wamser wasn't exactly surprised when he lost in 1981 to Vince Schoemehl Jr.

St. Louis long had been as solidly Democratic as it was culturally conservative, but Wamser doubted that ideology was the only influence on elections. He believed that the system was rigged against challengers, and he wasn't alone. Even some Democrats agreed with Wamser, but proof was another matter. Investigation after investigation into voter fraud had fizzled, including a probe by then-Circuit Attorney George Peach, who came up with nothing just one year before Wamser lost.

No indictments didn't mean no problems. Prompted by concerns on the part of politicos such as Peach and Wamser, the city's morning daily, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, exposed a disgusting pattern of fraud in city elections just one month after the 1982 primary. Then-Gov. Christopher "Kit" Bond heaped praise on the newspaper, but Bond was a Republican and the Globe-Democrat -- well, the conservative Globe-Democrat had a reputation for using its news pages to advance political causes. So when Wamser -- a defeated GOP candidate, appointed to the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners by a Republican governor -- complained about vote fraud, surely sour grapes and his political persuasion made him prone to hyperbole. After all, he was claiming that fraud was so widespread and safeguards so lax, he could probably register his dog Exeter P. Wamser to vote.

Jennifer Silverberg
Comptroller Darlene Green has testified before a federal grand jury.
Comptroller Darlene Green has testified before a federal grand jury.

Exeter was never registered, but a dozen years later, a different dog did make it onto voting rolls.

Ritzy was trotted out by Bond, now the state's senior senator, last year during the latest investigations into voter fraud. Registered during a 1994 voter-registration drive paid for by gambling interests, Ritzy never voted. After receiving a perfunctory registration notice from the election board, Ritzy's owners, who had used their pet's name instead of their own in the telephone book, did the right thing and told the board that this new voter wasn't a yellow-dog Democrat, just a dog.

But Ritzy showed what could have happened in a one-party town where politics are bruising, the number of registered voters surpasses the voting-age population and the election board can't be trusted to run an election.

On Nov. 7, 2000, when every vote really did matter, indifference and incompetence finally caught up with St. Louis. The city became a national laughingstock thanks to an election board built on patronage and politicians who had long countenanced a system that did just one thing well: keep the powers that be in place.

Hundreds of legitimate voters weren't allowed to cast ballots because their names were on the city's list of inactive voters -- they had moved without notifying the election board or the board had botched paperwork. City circuit judges compounded the crisis by keeping the polls open late and signing hundreds of court orders allowing unregistered voters to cast ballots. By day's end, police were dispersing crowds of would-be voters from board headquarters while Bond pounded a podium and accused Democrats of stealing the election. "An outrage!" he thundered.

Here was a fiasco too big to ignore -- even in St. Louis.

The FBI was soon poking around while Bond played point man for federal election reforms aimed at preventing fraud. The heat had never been so high. But, this being St. Louis, it wasn't altogether surprising when more than 3,000 suspect voter-registration cards arrived at election-board headquarters less than four months later, on the registration deadline for the 2001 primary. Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, whose mother, Nellene Joyce, was among the dead political figures whose names appeared on the bogus cards, immediately launched a criminal investigation, which is pending more than a year later.

Whether someone is pulling strings in an elaborate attempt to steal elections today is anybody's guess, but it's happened before. The city's election board bumbled as badly as ever in the first election of the 21st century, and the city has a history of politicians who exploit every crack.

So far, Joyce has netted just three small fish, each charged last month with submitting phony registration cards. But several election-board officials and at least one elected city official, Comptroller Darlene Green, have been called before a federal grand jury that has recently concluded the investigation that's now back in Joyce's lap.

Meanwhile, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys based in Washington, D.C., still are digging into the 2000 election.

Given the city's history, anything could happen.

Over the past 20 years, mob bosses, drug kingpins, street-corner thugs and even a few politicians have been implicated in vote-fraud schemes. But underlying problems that are the petri dishes for electoral corruption have remained unsolved.

At least someone smells change.

"This is the first time this is being taken seriously," Wamser says.

"Prior to Jennifer Joyce, it was hard to sustain interest by the local prosecutor in serious instances of election fraud."

No one knows just how many bogus votes may have been cast in 2000, nor does anyone know how many legitimate voters were denied the right to cast ballots. But the chaos was perfect for stealing an election.

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