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Partisan sparring over computer trouble plaguing Missouri's voter database

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 2, 2010 - Area election officials -- particularly in St. Louis and St. Louis County -- say they haven't been affected much by the computer-server problem affecting internet access to the state of Missouri's voter database, which lists all of the state's roughly 4 million registered voters.

Laura Egerdal, communications director for the secretary of state's office, says the database is on a separate server, which has been balky for much of the day. At 3:30 p.m., the voter list was accessible via the internet.

Egerdal said local election authorities have had online access since 2 p.m.

She emphasized that the problem doesn't affect most voters. But local election officials who rely on the state list to verify a voter's status would have to check instead the election authority's own copy -- on paper or the internet.

The jurisdications also can call the secretary of state's election hotline, 1-800-NOW-VOTE.

The problem mostly affects rural counties, which haven't set up their own electronic backup list of all registered voters.

Missouri's Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, Roy Blunt, blasted the computer problem and called it an example of incompetence by his Democratic rival, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. The Missouri Republican Party also sent out a critical statement.

"Robin Carnahan had one job to do today as secretary of state and she failed," Blunt said in a statement. "The statewide system she installed to check the identity of voters crashed and was down for most of the morning. This incompetence is unacceptable. Robin Carnahan needs to do her job, fix this system and face the voters today to explain what is going on in her office and why she was so ill-prepared for this election. Missourians deserve better."

Blunt is a former secretary of state, but there was no statewide database during his eight-year tenure from 1985-1993. The database was mandated by the federal government in 2006 as part of the Help America Vote Act, but there have been problems for years in setting it up and getting local jurisdications to cooperate. Voters in Boone and St. Charles counties, for example, are on the state list but their election authorities don't rely on the state list to run elections.

In St. Louis County, the state's largest jurisdiction, Democratic elections director Joe Donahue said each county polling place has a palm pilot with the county's own voter database, so local poll workers weren't affected by the state's computer problems.

In St. Louis, a spokesman said each polling place also has a list of registered voters who cast ballots regularly. The state list was used only when there was a question about an "inactive voter'' who wasn't on the regular list at the polling place. Such a person, who is registered, would be on a separate city voter list and on the larger statewide database.

With the state's electronic system down, St. Louis election workers simply reverted back to the old procedure -- before the state database was in operation -- of thumbing through the city's hard-copy list of "inactive voters."

Until recently, St. Louis also had palm pilots in each polling place -- in response to the federal lawsuit after the election in 2000. That year, there were massive problems at city polling places because they did not have access to the inactive voter list. The palm pilots were discontinued when the state electronic database when online.

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