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St. Louis County elections extended in 63 precincts after ballot shortages

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

Updated as story develops: St. Louis County’s municipal elections got off to a rocky start on Tuesday, with many polling places quickly running out of ballots. An appeals court extended voting until 9 p.m., but the decision came late. Shortly after 5 p.m., Circuit Judge Maura B. McShane denied a request to extend voting. In a hand-written order, the presiding judge in the county said "the court denies petitioners' request and doesn't believe it has authority to extend the hours."

In an email, Eric Fey, Democratic director of the St. Louis County Board of Elections, said, "Any ballots cast after 7:00 pm as a result of the court order will not be counted tonight."

But a message on the board of elections website told of another problem:

“Unfortunately the writ was not issued until 7:30 p.m. after many of the polling locations were closed and secured. Attempts are being made to contact the locations in hopes of having them reopen, however, if voters are unable to access their polling location they should proceed to the board of elections office.”

Fey had earlier told St. Louis Public Radio that anywhere from 30 to 35 locations ran out of paper ballots. That number obviously increased as the day went on. The relatively short gap between the presidential primary and the municipal election meant that St. Louis and St. Louis County couldn’t use electronic voting machines.

That means paper ballots were the only option for various mayoral, city council and tax proposition elections throughout the county.

“We sent an incorrect amount of ballots to these various locations. We are sending extra ballots to each polling place as we receive more from our printer," Fey wrote in an email. "We are in the process of drafting the appropriate documents to ask the court to extend voting hours."

Secretary of State Jason Kander, who is also a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said in a tweet that his office would launch an immediate review of the ballot shortages.

"The fact that they ran out of ballots today is unacceptable," Kander said.

A statement from Gov. Jay Nixon said:

“Ensuring elections are run freely, fairly and effectively is one of government’s most important and fundamental responsibilities. What is occurring in St. Louis County is inexcusable. The St. Louis County Board of Elections, and particularly its two directors, must rectify these mistakes, explain how they occurred, and be held accountable for this unacceptable failure.”

Problems widespread

The shortage appeared to be occurring across the entire county. For instance: Hart Nelson of the St. Louis Regional Chamber Tweeted that his polling place in Brentwood was out of ballots at 8 a.m. Moline Acres Alderwoman Shonte Yong said her city ran out of paper ballots around noon. And KSDK- TV reported that, among other places, polling sites in Sunset Hills, Hazelwood and Bridgeton were short on ballots.

St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, said she started receiving telephone calls early in the morning about polling places running out of ballots. She said she’s heard about shortages in University City and Berkeley, two jurisdictions that are holding highly contested municipal elections.

(Erby also said she's received reports that some polling places in her council district received incorrect ballots. Fey said in an e-mail that "we haven’t received any credible calls about ballots in the wrong location. We just sent too few ballots to many locations.") 

Erby said that she would be in favor of keeping county polling places open past 7 p.m. to make sure people get to vote. 

St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, wants to raise the county's minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, said she started receiving calls about polling places running out of ballots at 7:15 a.m.

“If the machines could not be programmed to function this close after the March primary, then why weren’t we prepared with the number of ballots that we needed?” Erby said. “You would think that they would have had more than enough ballots if they knew that the machines would not be working today. That doesn’t make sense to me. It just seems like it’s a matter of preparation.”

This isn’t the first time St. Louis County polling places have run out of ballots. During the 2014 midterm election cycle, a high demand for paper ballots caused a shortage at about 95 polling places throughout the county. That was roughly 20 percent of the county’s 444 polling places. (It's worth noting that Fey's predecessor as Democratic elections director, former state Sen. Rita Days, was roundly criticized for ballot availability problems under her watch.)

Erby, who has been a Democratic committeewoman for many years, said she’s been noticing inefficiencies on the election board for some time.

“I’m going to a request a Committee of the Whole, because I want an explanation as to why this happened,” said Erby, referring to a committee hearing the St. Louis County Council holds to discuss specific problems within county government. “It would be a little bit different if the voter turnout was huge and it happened toward the end of the day. But [roughly] an hour? My phone started ringing at 7:15. That’s crazy.”

Erby emphasized that the election board should always be prepared with enough paper ballots.)

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said he was "boiling" when he started hearing reports of ballot shortages.

"As elections have had difficulties, I have been vocal, and I have spoken out," Stenger said. "It troubles me. This is a situation that they need to straighten out and they need to straighten it out immediately."

Though St. Louis County pays for elections, the members of the Elections Board are appointed by the state.

At 9 p.m., the St. Louis Board of Election website had 78.8 percent of votes counted (all ballot issues were winning) and the county website had nothing posted.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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