An Election Law Battle Is Brewing Around Kacey Cordes' Mayoral Campaign

Feb 14, 2017 at 2:46 pm
Kacey Cordes.

Just as she promised, Kacey Cordes waited until the last possible moment to formally enter the election fray as a candidate for St. Louis mayor. Her Declaration of Mayoral Candidacy shows a Board of Election Commissioners time-stamp for February 13, 4:58 pm. Cordes left just two minutes to spare.

But in doing so, the upstart candidate also fired the first shot in what could be a high-stakes battle with the city's Election Board and Democratic political establishment. Buckle up.

As we reported earlier this month, Cordes intends to sidestep the upcoming and very contentious March 7 Democratic primary so that she can focus on the April 4 general election. Doing so would leave Cordes facing the primary winner — and, if that ends up being the current frontrunner, Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, Cordes could conceivably consolidate the progressive votes now split among a quartet of candidates to mount a real challenge. Cordes, 38, touts an arsenal progressive policy ideas — which she has yet to fully define — and an overall emphasis on racial equity.

And that means Cordes' candidacy could set up a situation unprecedented in recent St. Louis politics: a competitive mayoral election outside the umbrella of the city's Democratic party machinery.

But that's where the second layer to this unfolding drama comes in: Cordes claims that a whisper campaign sparked by a Democratic committeewoman — a supporter of Democratic mayoral candidate Tishuara Jones — has effectively crippled her staff's ability to collect the signatures she needs to make the April 4 ballot. She's both crying foul — and offering a different path to the ballot that she insists is legal, in defiance of past local precedent.

As stipulated by the Election Board's official website, Independent and non-partisan candidates can't simply turn in their filing fee and paperwork and breeze into the election arena; they need to get that paperwork signed by 487 registered St. Louis voters, or 2 percent of the entire vote cast during the preceding mayoral election.

Yet when Cordes turned in her nominating paperwork at 4:58 p.m. on Monday, she didn't turn in a single signature. An election worker still accepted Cordes' receipt for the $1,318 filing fee and her declaration of candidacy, but in any normal election, swift rejection would be sure to follow.

In a four-page letter delivered this morning to Erwin O. Switzer, chairman of the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners, however, Cordes' campaign argues that it didn't need the petition or the 487 signatures. In fact, the letter argues that Independent candidates in general aren't required to turn in signatures, and that the city's current position is actually based on misinterpretation of its own laws.

Basically, the letter — which you can read in full below — argues that Cordes doesn't need to turn in any signatures to earn a place on the April ballot.

The letter points out that the 487 signature-requirement is a burden meant only for "non-partisan" candidates, as opposed to "Independents." The letter notes that there is no mention of Independents in the relevant St. Louis city ordinance that describes the requirement for signature-gathering.

When it comes to Missouri law, there are separate definitions for Independent and non-partisan candidates. St. Louis city currently uses the two interchangeably. In fact, when Cordes filed her paperwork as an Independent candidate, she signed a document that bore the title "Declaration of Non-Partisan Candidate."

In an interview, Cordes tells RFT that her team decided back in November to begin collecting signatures, even though they believed the requirement did not apply to an Independent candidate.

"We knew we could easily get 1,000 signatures without trying very hard," she says. "We were feeling comfortable, we had a solid plan."

But then, she says, things went awry. "All of a sudden we started hearing people saying that you couldn’t sign nominating petitions and also vote in the primary," she says. "We’d get text messages, ‘Somebody doesn’t want to sign, they’re afraid’ – that was a word that so many people used, that they are 'afraid' to sign this petition."

What would make someone afraid to sign a petition? The answer, perhaps, can be found in a what otherwise appears to be an uninteresting and technical blog post published by 7th Ward Committeewoman Marie Ceselski on January 16, weeks before Cordes went public with her candidacy.

In the post, Ceselski quoted the city's municipal code — the very same section Cordes' campaign is now disputing — that requires non-partisan candidates to gather sufficient signatures. Particularly, she cited the line that describes how anyone who signed such a petition would essentially declare that "they have not aided, and will not aid, in the nomination of any other candidate for an elective city office.”

To this, Ceselski added (emphasis added):
By signing an Independent candidate’s petition, you are nominating a candidate for public office. If you nominate an Independent for the General Election, you cannot help nominate a candidate by voting in the Primary Election, you may only take out a nonpartisan ballot to vote on Proposition S.

Section 115.323 Revised Statutes of Missouri also prohibits a voter from nominating more than one person for an office.

Basically, Ceselski suggested that signing an Independent's petition could complicate your ability to vote in the primary. You could be accused of abusing your voting rights and formally challenged, for instance. At the least, it could create an an annoying hassle. At worst, Ceselski's post implied that your vote could be challenged and potentially invalidated.

Ceselski didn't mention Cordes' name, but her implication was clear. And, indeed, Ceselski showed her hand a bit more directly on NextDoor this weekend. When a Cordes supporter asked which neighbors wanted to sign Cordes' petition, Ceselski responded with certainty that doing so meant they couldn't vote in the Democratic primary.

"Just as you cannot take out a Democratic ballot on March 7th and then get back in line to take out a Republican ballot, you cannot sign an Independent candidate's nominating petition and then vote a party ballot on March 7th," Ceselski wrote.

Whether or not anyone saw Ceselski's post, it's indisputable that Cordes' campaign ran into trouble with signatures. By Monday, they'd collected only about 500 — a disastrous total for a campaign that really needed about 2,000, considering that half those signatures would likely be tossed out for various technical errors, like a mismatched address or even just bad handwriting. (Just ask the medical marijuana folks about that.)

In her letter to the Election Board today, Cordes claims that "hundreds of potential signatories" were deterred, "for fear that primary election officials would deny them ballots to vote in the Democratic primary."

The letter submitted by Cordes' campaign does not mention Ceselski by name, but it notes that a "Democratic Party representatives for over a month informed valid, registered voters throughout City of St. Louis that if they signed a 'nominating petition' for an independent candidate for Mayor, City of St. Louis, they would be unable to vote in the March 7, 2017, primary election."

Cordes sees Ceselski's meddling as a form of voter suppression.

"I’m not interested in spending my time arguing about an ordinance," Cordes tells RFT. "But when it amounts to voter suppression and people telling me, ‘I am afraid to sign your petition' — that is absolutely an injustice. This could be me or any other candidate. People should be able to interact and participate in public service in such a way that it doesn't amount to a fear campaign."

So was Ceselski right? Does St. Louis election law actually stipulate that a registered voter who signs an Independent's nominating petition has, in effect, lost their right to vote for a Democratic candidate in the primary?

As it turns out, at the RFT, we have been trying to figure out the answer to that — for more than a week. While it took numerous requests, and we didn't get an answer back in time to help anyone trying to decide whether to sign Cordes' petition, both state and local election authorities are now implying Ceselski was, in fact, wrong. But neither was particularly clear in their assessment or helpful in offering advice for worried voters.

On the state level, a representative for the Missouri Secretary of State told RFT that signing an Independent's nominating petition is the equivalent to saying, "You will vote for that Independent candidate when they are on the ballot," suggesting that it gives Cordes' petition-signers the green-light to vote for their Democratic candidate of choice in the primary, and only later reserve their vote for Cordes in the general.

Things were even hazier when it comes to St. Louis local election officials. In an email Monday, Gary Stoff, the Republican Director of Elections for St. Louis, only went as far as reiterating his office's standard policies for challenging a vote at the polls. In his summary, he suggested the voter could cast a ballot, even if challenged.

"[If] the voter's name is in the electronic poll book and he/she is an 'active' voter (meaning that, as far as we know, the voter still lives at the address reflected in the e-poll book), and the voter produces a valid form of ID and signs the poll book to confirm that all his/her information is still correct, then that voter will be issued a ballot of his/her choice," he wrote.

When asked directly if the election board's counsel is advising that "a person who signed an Independent Candidate Nominating Petition can vote in the Democratic primary and won't be violating election laws," Stoff replied, "the board's outside counsel." He then ignored repeated follow-up requests for clarification.

Where does that leave Cordes' campaign? Ironically, its fate lies in the hands of the city's Election Board, the same one that spent a week ducking our questions about whether Democratic Party voters could safely sign an Independent's petition. Now the board will have to decide whether to strike Cordes from the general election ballot— likely resulting in a lawsuit from the campaign — or to accept her declaration of candidacy without the required number of petitions.

Reached for comment, Ceselski brushed off Cordes' accusations of "voter suppression." She says her January 16 blog post drew fewer than 200 views. And in any case, Ceselski adds, Cordes could have avoided all this legal uncertainty if she had simply collected enough signatures.

"There are, roughly, 192,000 registered voters in the City," Ceselski wrote to the RFT. "[Cordes] only needed 487 signatures. If she had problems getting signatures, it's her own fault, not mine."

Kacey Cordes -- Letter to Board of Election 2/14/17 by Danny Wicentowski on Scribd

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]