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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.

"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."

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.

• "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.

Minutes after the polling places opened at 6 a.m., he says, judges were dialing the election board to verify names but kept getting busy signals. This continued the rest of the day at all the precincts in the ward, resulting in frustrated voters' having to wait to vote. "There was a constant complaint from judges -- they just couldn't get through," Chance says. He also says he stopped about five people from voting because they said they lived in the county but figured that because they had previously been registered in the city, they could vote. Others were turned away because they registered after the Oct. 11 deadline, he says. Better-prepared voters who know the law would go a long way toward a more orderly Election Day, he adds.

Chance also says too many election judges are simply too old to do the job. "It's a long, grueling day with a lot of cranky and angry people you're dealing with," he says. "Quite frankly, a lot of these people are not capable, physically or mentally, to do the job."

Election judges are paid $79 for the day, which translates to barely minimum wage for the 14 or 15 hours they work. Kimbrough agrees that too many elderly people work as judges, slowing the process when turnout is large. "If you would double the pay, we would get more people applying," he says.

He also notes that the election-board offices, at 300 N. Tucker Blvd., are far too small and have only three windows to serve voters. The board's previous office, across from City Hall, had 28 windows. Kimbrough says he's absolutely certain that no fraud took place, that no more than 100 people were allowed to vote after the polls were ordered closed by the appellate court and that although voters experienced long delays, not that many were denied their right to vote.

In any case, nobody is alleging that the outcome of any race would have changed had there been perfectly run city elections.

All of this goes to show that Bond and his suburban Republican colleagues have blown a relatively minor problem out of proportion and that Clay and his Democratic colleagues overstated the extent of the disenfranchisement.

As for the politicians who are promising to overhaul the election board, including Mayor Clarence Harmon and Aldermanic President Francis Slay, they might be better off using their power to leverage more money -- so the election board can get more and better workers by offering more than a minimum wage and so it can set up a better phone system, staffed by more workers, to cut down delays.

That way, we won't have to suffer another court fight led by Democrats in the city of St. Louis. Or a ballistic Kit Bond spouting nonsense on the next Election Night.

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