© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

St. Louis County Election Board Acknowledges Error In Ferguson Voter Registrations

voting booth for paper ballot
File photo | Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon

A week ago, USAToday and other national media outlets were reporting a surge of voter registrations in Ferguson, the city at the center of unrest since the fatal police shooting of teenaged Michael Brown on Aug. 9.

In fact, no such surge occurred.

"It was a simple error, with a not-so-simple outcome," said Laura Swinford, spokeswoman for the Missouri secretary of state's office.

The St. Louis County Election Board announced Tuesday that it had goofed in compiling registration figures earlier this month showing more than 3,200 Ferguson residents had registered to vote since the shootings.

In fact, as of Oct. 6, only 128 new voters had registered in the city of Ferguson, which has a population of 21,000.

That lower number is almost identical to the figure that the board reported in mid-September in response to an inquiry by St. Louis Public Radio.

When the board released the much higher number last week, County Election Board Democratic Director Rita Days credited a deluge of voter registrations in mid-September, right after the radio station’s request for numbers. And, in fact, after Brown's death, several organizations conducted voter registration drives in Ferguson to promote greater civic engagement and involvement.

But now, Days blames the statewide voter-registration database maintained by the Missouri secretary of state’s office. She said in a statement Tuesday that the database had been used by her staff to calculate the faulty numbers that showed the surge.

"After two days of meetings with the (secretary of state's office), we were given the correct number," Days said. And that correct number for Ferguson is 128.  

Swinford said that county election officials used the wrong state voter-registration report to compile their figures, resulting in the huge inaccuracy.  The higher number represented all the Ferguson residents who had made some change in their voter registration, such as change of address.  Most of them already were registered voters.

As of Tuesday, the city of Ferguson has 14,448 registered voters, Swinford said.

St. Louis County as a whole has 748,340 registered voters as of Oct. 1, Swinford said. That's an overall increase in new voter registrations of almost 5,600 since July 30. 

Of the county tally, the state said, 668,024 are on the county's "active" voter rolls and another 80,316 on its “inactive rolls’’ – people who have not voted in recent elections or who may have moved and voted elsewhere.  Such voters are allowed to cast ballots if they show up with the proper identification.

In Ferguson, the numbers are 12,315 active voters and 2,133 on the "inactive'' list.

Voter registration for the Nov. 4 election ends Wednesday at 5 p.m.

At least one nationally known data site, FiveThirtyEight, said it had been suspicious of the county's high Ferguson numbers from the get-go.  Late Tuesday, the site featured its assessment with the disparaging headline, "The Voter Registration Report From Ferguson Was Impossible."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.