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Newman and Carlson's long, strange election concludes with rematch today

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2012 - When Democrats Susan Carlson and Stacey Newman faced off in August, it was a marquee example of how redistricting pitted two incumbents against each other.

But the already novel matchup became an outright oddity when initial results showed Newman ahead of Carlson ahead by one vote in the St. Louis County-based 87th District House seat. And it moved into even more unfamiliar territory when the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners found irregularities and successfully persuaded a St. Louis County judge to order a new election.

Now, the two state legislators are out of the courtroom and back on the campaign trail. With a Sept. 24 election inching closer, both candidates are using the truncated timeframe to alert supporters to come back to the polls for a Monday election.

Unlike August – which featured literally dozens of compelling contests for the state legislature – the Newman-Carlson skirmish is the only election on the calendar. And that may be making the disagreements between the two progressive-leaning candidates clearer. It’s also bringing closer scrutiny to the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners, which wants to avoid the errors that sparked the new election in the first place.

With the unique nature of the election, Rita Days – the Democratic director for the election board – said she’s unsure how many people will flock to the polls. 

“This is new territory. I really don’t have any historical perspective that I can pull from,” said Days, when asked what she expected the turnout to be. “I sense that, since there’s such a heightened awareness of this election, that maybe people will tend to come out.”

Drawn together

After a panel of judges last year released a House map, dozens of incumbents were placed together into newly drawn districts. Most avoided potentially awkward primaries by running in nearby district. Some lawmakers - such as state Rep. John Cauthorn, R-Mexico, and Rep. Gary Fuhr, R-St. Louis County, decided not to run for re-election.

But Newman and Carlson didn’t budge when their residences were drawn into the 87th District, which encompasses parts of University City, Clayton, Ladue, Richmond Heights and Brentwood. The district is home to Washington University and the St. Louis County Government Center as well as some highly desirable public schools. It was one of four Democratic primaries in the St. Louis area featuring sitting lawmakers.

Both candidates were involved in politics before winning election to the legislature. Newman, D-Richmond Heights, served as executive director of the Missouri Women’s Coalition and the women’s vote director for both the Missouri Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee. She also worked professionally as a teacher and for Trans World Airlines.

An attorney, Carlson, D-University City, previously worked with the U.S. Department of Justice and as a law professor at Washington University Law School. She was a trustee for the Metropolitan Sewer District, a national board member for the American Civil Liberties Union and a board member for Missouri NARAL’s political action committee.

Since winning the primary is tantamount to election with no Republican opponent, the two made distinct cases to Democratic voters.

Newman presented herself as an counterpoint to the Republican majority, opposing efforts to impose a photo ID requirement to vote>, curtail abortion rights and allow employers to exclude abortion, contraception or sterilization in health insurance coverage. And she’s advocated adding sexual orientation into state and county nondiscrimination laws.

If re-elected, she would make examining election law – and particularly opposing efforts to implement a photo ID requirement – a priority. She also said she would continue to fight “the extreme agenda” put forward by House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka.

“I fully expect there will be a full-fledged attack on teachers coming in January,” Newman said. “And again, there is always something [coming] with the War on Women. That’s not over. That’s not done. Right to Life comes up with priorities each legislative session. And again, I’ll be on the forefront of that.”

While Carlson holds many of aforementioned policy stances – including opposition to a photo ID requirement and support of abortion rights – her campaign has showcased her work on the House Rules Committee and the House Judiciary Committee. She also noted that her expertise an attorney helps her comprehend and improve legislation.

“On the overriding, big hot button issues, our votes are the same,” said Carlson. “I think that my skillset and then what I have done the last two years and what I have been able to show I can do in the legislature that I’m the most effective person in the race.”

Both candidates raised and spent a similar amount of money during the primary, signaling that both were campaigns were competitive. That sentiment came to fruition when unofficial results showed Newman was ahead of Carlson by a single vote. But the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners found irregularities soon after the results were announced.

The mistakes occurred during the Aug. 7 primary at the polling place in Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Brentwood. Joe Goeke – the now-former Republican director for the St. Louis County Board of Elections – revealed during a court hearing that 100 voters in the 83rd District received ballots to vote in the 87th District, while two 87th District residents received ballots for the 83rd District. After a lengthy hearing, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Michael Jamison ordered the new election.

Jamison, by the way, set the election on a Monday because of a state statute requiring a new vote to occur at most 30 days after a court order. It also doesn’t conflict with Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that begins next Tuesday night.

Getting the message out

In the roughly 30-day time period between the court proceedings and the new election, both candidates say that they’re using direct mail, personal phone calls and social media to alert people of the new election.

Both said that they were particularly focused on informing people about the election's unusual nature. Carlson, for instance, wants to make sure that residents “don’t wake up Tuesday morning and realize that they’ve missed the day.”

“A lot of people note that it’s a lot nicer weather to be knocking on doors now than July, which is absolutely true,” quipped Carlson, alluding to the stifling heatwave that deviled St. Louis-area candidates during the primary season. “It’s quite interesting that a really large number of folks know that there’s a special election and when it is. And that’s even before the mail went out from the election board. Either they’ve gotten a piece from me or they heard about in the news or read the paper.”

“This area has a lot of folks that do pay a lot of attention to what’s going on,” she added.

Newman said that she’s also trying to let voters know of their polling places, adding that a number of precincts changed locations since August.

“They’re motivated,” Newman said of her supporters. “The trick has been to make sure that everyone knows when the election is. And actually show them their correct polling place.”

For the most part, the disagreements between the two candidates hovered around differing votes on legislation.

Carlson, for instance, criticized Newman for not supporting legislation to fund the “Quality Jobs Act.” Carlson said the measure - which uses tax credits and withholding tax benefits to give companies incentives to add jobs - was a way to foster economic development. But Newman said that it was inappropriate to fund such a tax credit while other programs are cut.

Newman has in turn chided Carlson for voting for 2011 legislation aimed at expanding charter schools. Both candidates voted against charter school legislation that Nixon signed earlier this year, although Carlson has said she supports charter schools with certain oversight in unaccredited districts.

Perhaps the pair’s biggest disagreement has been over wide-ranging environmental legislation that Carlson supported and Newman opposed. Newman said that the bill included a provision involving the transport of radioactivematerial that a number of other St. Louis Democrats – including state Reps. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, and Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis – opposed.

“When you have bills that like this – omnibus bills – that contain many issues, you have to look at the entire thing,” Newman said. “So I stand by my vote. The provision is in the bill. It’s clearly documented for anyone to look up in terms of the bill that was actually truly agreed and finally passed.”

Carlson though said that the specific provision was altered enough throughout the course of session. She's often alluded to how the bill included a provision allowing the Department of Natural Resources to impose an annual fee "for each customer service connection with a public water system" to enforce the federal Clean Drinking Water Act.

“By the time it got to that final vote, any concerns that environmental groups had had fallen away,” Carlson said. “I voted for it because there were other provisions in it that were very useful and important.”

Sierra Club Missouri Chapter Director John Hickey said in an interview that the bill was not a rated vote by the environmental organization. He said his group was adamantly opposed to language that charged no fee for trucks hauling radioactive material across the state.

Hickey said the final version of the measure - which was placed onto several bills - lowered the fees, which he added was better than original language that he spoke out against to the Kansas City Star in April.

"We objected to there being no fee, because the reality is that’s dangerous stuff and the state has to track that and make sure it’s transported effectively," Hickey said. "And it does cost money to the public and the public shouldn’t pay the cost of a private corporation using our roads to make money."

"Because the fee was restored at a level that DNR was reasonable, we thought 'fair enough - we're not vote on our vote chart,'" he added. "We did not take a position at that time encouraging legislators to either vote yes or no on that final version." 

More recently, both candidates voted to sustain Nixon's veto of legislation allowing entities to exclude abortion, contraception or sterilization services from insurance coverage.

Avoiding future do-overs

Carlson’s attorneys advocated for a new election, arguing that the ballot mix-ups unquestionably affected the outcome of the election.

Newman argued against such a move, stating, among other things, that election board officials didn’t offer evidence of irregularities at trial. They also charged that a new election would present logistical problems for absentee balloting, military voting and voting for disabled people.

For her part, Days said that the redo election shouldn’t repeat some of the issues that occurred on Aug. 7. The board is only using paper ballots to prevent any electronic voting machine equipment from malfunctioning.

“The problem happened because there were two ballot styles at this particular polling location. With this election, there is only one,” Days said. “There are only two people on this ballot. So to have a mistake like that, I don’t know how in the world you could have another ballot style because there has not been one printed."

But Newman did spotlight one recent issue: A letter was sent out to 87th District residents alerting them of a new election. But it included verbiage stating that a “signature ID” was required, even though voters can bring a utility bill or a bank statement as identification.

Days said board has since reprinted these letters and they “are being mailed out to constituents as we speak.” In a follow-up e-mail, Days said it cost $7,300 to reprint and mail the second letter. That, she said, includes the cost of postage, printing, paper and envelopes.

Newman also noted that Monday's election could conceivably allow somebody who voted in the Republican primary to influence an election of two Democrats. Days said since there's no party identification procedures in Missouri, it was possible that Republicans voted in the regular August primary. 

In any case, Days said election workers are receiving additional training to avoid another electoral calamity in November.

“We had trained our workers from the February primary all the way through August,” Days said. “And we initially decided that we would not retrain again, because we’re just simply going over the same information. But when this happened, we said ‘we have to make absolutely sure that all of our supervisors are well aware of how this work and what is required and emphasize the importance of what they do.’”

“You had a very long day that these people are there from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m,” she added. “So we understand that we’re doing everything we possibly can do to make sure that we have a good election.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.