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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the Trail: What went wrong during St. Louis County's municipal elections?

Eric Fey, the Democratic director for the St. Louis County Board of Elections.
File photo by Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

It would be an understatement to say that Tuesday was not a good day for Eric Fey.

The Democratic director for the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners is in charge of the largest and most complicated local electoral jurisdiction in the state. And during yesterday’s slate of municipal elections, polling places across the county ran out of paper ballots — even in the early hours of the morning. Things got so dire that a court ultimately extended voting hours — after the polls had already closed.

Fey and the rest of the board came under intense scrutiny. Several members of the St. Louis County Council want to hold hearings on why things went so awry.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger  — who on Tuesday said he was "boiling" when he started hearing reports of ballot shortages — said on Wednesday that he had spoken with Fey, and offered any assistance his office can provide. (The county's elected officials have limited direct input into the board's operations.) House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Popular Bluff, created a task force on Thursday to look into the county's ballot availability problems. And Secretary of State Jason Kander launched his own investigation. 

“We have already begun the review and will finish it as quickly as possible,” said Kander spokeswoman Stephanie Fleming. “Our goal is to let St. Louis County voters know where the Election Board erred and give the board advice on how to move forward. We’ll likely have more information to give out early next week.”

So what went wrong? I sat down with Fey on Wednesday morning at his office in Maplewood to get a sense of what happened and where the board plans to go from here. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

ROSENBAUM: What happened yesterday?

FEY: Essentially what happened was in a number of polling places where more than one type of ballot was required, we essentially flipped the quantities of ballots required in those situations. So for instance: If you had two ballot styles, in “Ballot Style A” we should have sent 25 ballots and “Ballot Style B” we should have sent 500 ballots. We had those quantities flipped. So, in one instance we had way too many ballots and in one instance we had way too few ballots. And that played out all across the St. Louis County yesterday.

If things had gone correctly, how should it have worked? And where was the fatal flaw that caused it to go haywire?

We’re still investigating that. But essentially it a database issue. We extract the data we use to compile the ballot order from a few sources. And at some point, and we haven’t identified exactly that point yet, those quantities were just flipped in those locations.

From what I saw, about 60 to 65 polling places were affected?

I think at the end of the day, that’s the number that we ended up having.

The ballots that were cast after 7 p.m. were provisional ballots, which means they weren’t included in last night’s tallies. Do you have any sense of how many of those votes were cast and how they could impact a bunch of different elections at this point?

It’s a little early at this point. There weren’t very many ballots cast after 7 p.m. as far as I know. I know of less than 10 at this point.

Across the whole county?

Yes. That being said, we had in some municipalities some very close races yesterday. So it’s too early to say that they couldn’t impact the outcome of an election.

One of the reasons this was such a big problem was voters could normally use electronic voting machines. Why couldn’t you use electronic voting machines so close to the presidential primary?

We deployed our full complement of equipment for the presidential primary knowing that turnout more than likely would be strong. And that was case. We had a record turnout in the presidential primary. So the three weeks we had between the presidential primary and this municipal election, logistically we saw no way to have those machines turned around in time to pick up and deliver — and to perform the logic and accuracy testing as required by state law.

When I was talking with St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby yesterday, she said that if the electronic machines were not available, the election board should have been more prepared. The county has so many jurisdictions that have elections in April. How do you respond to that?

We thought we were prepared. There’s no other way to say it, other than that we ordered more than enough ballots. They were just the wrong ones. That’s really what it comes down to. I think by and large, our preparation was good. And my staff was working seven days a week, 10 to 12 hour days to get this all done. And this came down to an error in the way the data was transferred between databases. And you know, that’s really what it comes down to.

Secretary of State Jason Kander’s office has launched an investigation. What are you doing internally to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Because as I’m sure you know, the Election Board ran out of paper ballots in 2014.And that was one of the reasons people cited for your predecessor — Rita Days — being dismissed. Why did it keep happening? 

In 2014, I think it was a case of just ordering too few ballots. In this case, it was ordering the wrong ballots. So it’s not the same problem exactly. But I think for the voters that were affected by this yesterday — that really doesn’t matter. It’s a problem. And we need to get it right. And so what we’re doing right now is we’re sitting down with the staff. We’re figuring out exactly where we went wrong so we can put the adequate controls in place going forward so it can’t happen again.

On social media yesterday, some were calling for your resignation and GOP director Gary Fuhr’s resignation — especially considering with what happened with Rita Days. First of all, did you consider resigning? And where do you go forward from here if you stay on this job?

I would like the voters of St. Louis County to know that I have an absolutely passion for this job. I love election administration. I studied it in school. I observe elections around the world. I attend conferences. I’m a veracious reader on the topic. And I want to make this office the best election authority in the state of Missouri, and a model for the rest of the country. Yesterday was a huge setback in that regard. And rebuilding the credibility of this office is going to be a long, uphill slog.

But I think we have a good team in place here. And although we faltered badly yesterday, I think the team we have here can go forward and have good elections be the rule of the day in St. Louis County.

And team would include you and Director Fuhr?

I think so. Again, I think we have a good team here. I think we have the pieces in place to get to the bottom what happened and to go forward — and again administer very, very good elections in St. Louis County.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

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