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With spring votes looming, new election board members will hold key to fairness

This first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 17, 2009 - Just weeks before voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County go to the polls, Gov. Jay Nixon is making changes in the boards that oversee the region's elections.

Last Thursday, Nixon nominated one member -- and removed another -- on the St. Louis County Election Board, which runs the largest election-related operation in the state.

Nixon says that in the next few days he expects to announce more appointments to that four-person board -- and its counterparts in the city of St. Louis and across the state.

All of those nominees must be confirmed by the state Senate. The governor explained that his aim is to have his newly assembled election boards "in place and functioning" for this spring's elections.

Most Missouri jurisdictions, including St. Louis County, will next hold elections in April. But a few -- notably, the city of St. Louis -- will have one on March 3.

Still, on the surface, Nixon's move to put his stamp quickly on the six urban and suburban election boards under his control may seem to be of the inside-baseball variety that attracts little public interest or attention.

But in fact, few other actions by Missouri's governor have as much direct impact on the state's residents and would-be voters

The boards oversee staffs of dozens of paid employees -- who by law must be equally divided between the two major parties. And on Election Day, those staffs in turn supervise hundreds of volunteer crews, also equally divided by party, who are paid less than $100 apiece to run the polling places for 13 hours straight.

As a rule, though, the public focuses on the election boards and their operations only when they make the news.

In the last decade, that attention has been pretty often. And it's usually negative.

Last fall, the St. Louis County board came under fire over the debacle in Velda City, where too-few voting machines led to waits of six hours or more. The board blamed the local polling-place workers, who didn't install all the assigned machines to have more room for their food table.

Some Democrats also continue to point to long polling-place lines at various predominantly Democratic precincts in the county last November as evidence of possible voter-suppression efforts by the Republican-controlled board. The board denied the accusations.

Meanwhile, Republicans note a long history of GOP tangles with urban election boards, especially in the city of St. Louis, over attempted fraudulent registrations, including that of a dog. City election officials reply that it was their staffs who uncovered the bogus registration cards.

The presidential election in 2000 touched off a Justice Department lawsuit against the city of St. Louis because flawed voter lists at the polls prompted an undetermined number of legitimately registered people to be turned away at the polls. The Republican Party went to court that election night to halt a Democratic effort keep polls open an extra three hours because of the city chaos.

In all the cases, it was the election board commissioners -- who hold the unpaid posts at the pleasure of the governor -- who took the heat. By law, the four-person board must be made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. The chairman is always of the same party as the governor, while the board secretary must be a member of the opposing party.

Looking ahead to 2010

Nixon's choices are beginning to attract a lot of behind-the-scenes attention largely because those new boards will get election operations in place for the next major statewide election in November 2010.

Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who is the state's highest election official, already has announced plans to run for the U.S. Senate that year. Republicans privately acknowledge that they hope to highlight what they view as Carnahan's missteps in the election process since she took office in 2005.

The secretary of state oversees voting procedures but has no power over the individual election jurisdictions in the state. Neither does the governor in the case of 100 counties, where the county clerks oversee elections.

But for decades, state law mandates that the governor call the election shots in six urban or suburban counties. Besides St. Louis and St. Louis County, the other election boards are in Kansas City and the surrounding counties of Jackson, Platte and Clay.

"I think these are critically important appointments,'' said state Republican Party executive director Jared Craighead. "I don't expect to be consulted, but I do expect Gov. Nixon to appoint professionals who will take this job seriously."

The commissioners usually have political ties, as do the top members of their paid staffs. County Republican elections director Joseph Goeke, for example, is a retired judge. He ran the board's staff until Nixon took office. Now, Democratic elections director Joseph Donahue is officially in charge.

Donahue says he's heard nothing about any of Nixon's plans for the Election Board or its staff. "We're just continuing to operate the way we always do,'' Donahue said.

Nixon's first nominee to the county Election Board fit the traditional model. He's Richard H. Kellett, president of the North County Labor Club and a retired pipefitter. Kellett also has served more than a decade on the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council. His nephew is a prominent trial lawyer, Timothy Kellett.

If confirmed by the Senate, Richard Kellett will replace corporate lawyer John Fox Arnold, a prominent Republican who has been chairman of the Election Board since he was named last June by then-Gov. Matt Blunt.

Nixon's aides say that Kellett won't be named chairman of the St. Louis County Election Board. That means the as-yet-unnamed second Democrat will hold that title.

Reached while on vacation Monday, Richard Kellett, 74, said he had first been approached about the Election Board post a month ago. He's been told that the Senate is expected to take up his nomination later this month.

Kellett says he has no preconceived notions about what he'd like to do as an election board commissioner. And he's received no suggestions from Nixon's staff.

Slay a fan of city Election Board

In the city of St. Louis, Mayor Francis Slay -- a Democrat -- is a big fan of the Republican-controlled Election Board and its top employees: GOP elections director Scott Leiendecker and Democratic deputy elections director Matt Potter.

As a result, Slay hopes to see no changes by Nixon in the board's operations until after the March 3 primary. Chief of staff Jeff Rainford, who has taken a leave from the mayor's office to run Slay's campaign, says the mayor's support for the city Election Board has nothing to do with the fact that he's on the ballot March 3, in his quest for a third term.

Rainford noted with some pride that in recent elections, the city's polling places have operated smoothly, with few complaints from voters. Ballots citywide have been tallied swiftly, with the final results usually announced well before those in St. Louis County.

"That didn't used to be the case,'' Rainford said. "The St. Louis Election Board used to be a national embarrassment and a total mess. Now, it's not."

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'' Rainford concluded. "That's our position."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.