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St. Louis County ballot troubles spark talk of electing an elections authority

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

Updated on Wednesday with comments from state lawmakers: In Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander’s view, what happened last week in St. Louis County was an “inexcusable” event that prevented eligible voters from casting their ballots.

The Democratic official launched an investigation into why roughly 60 polling places ran out of ballots during last week’s municipal elections. His findings largely matched up with what St. Louis Board of Elections director Eric Fey said: There were errors in a database detailing the number of ballot types needed at certain polling places.

Since this isn’t the first time the board had major problems in administering an election, Kander says state lawmakers and St. Louis County elected officials should start talking about a major structural change — making the head of the elections agency an elected position. 

Secretary of State Jason Kander announced Thursday he will run for the U.S. Senate. It sets up a collision course with U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Secretary of State Jason Kander

“There have been egregious mistakes that have occurred under different leadership at the St. Louis County Board of Elections over the years,” said Kander in a telephone interview. “At some point, St. Louis County officials, in my opinion, have to ask if the set up is more an issue than the election board’s staff. So I just happen to believe that the time has arrived for St. Louis County and the Missouri General Assembly to study whether or not it makes sense to move to either an elected county clerk or election authority… or possibly some other system to create more accountability to the voters.”

The Board of Elections Commissioners consists of two Democrats and two Republicans appointed by the governor. There are two directors — one Democrat and one Republican — who effectively run the agency. And the director of the governor’s party (in this case, Fey) effectively runs the show. However, the county pays for the board’s operational costs.

While this set-up is similar in places like St. Louis, Kansas City and Jackson County, pretty much every other Missouri county has an elected clerk or elections director who manages elections. And although Kander is not necessarily saying St. Louis County should switch to an elected elections official, he said last week’s municipal election failures warrants a discussion.

“I’m not advocating that change be made,” Kander said. “I’m advocating that there be a conversation about whether or not there is a change that needs to made in the setup. Whether it be a change in the existing setup or a full change to an elected elections director, I’m just advocating that people start to have that conversation.”

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger agrees that the legislature should start talking about an elected leader to its election board.

“I think it would be a great conversation to have,” Stenger said. “There are some obvious issues. And I think a determination of those issues needs to be made. And while that’s happening, I think having a conversation about a broad fix is a good thing. And that’s certainly one option. And I think it should be discussed – the pros and the cons with some public debate about it.” 

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger's proposal would impliment minimum standards for police departments to follow. If they don't meet those benchmarks, Stenger's office could effectively disband departments.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger

It’s possible that the threat of being ousted by voters could make an elected head of the county elections agency more proactive to deal with problems. On the other hand, it’s also possible that voters could select somebody who is unqualified — and there would be little recourse to get rid of the person until their term ends.

Still, Stenger said there are big questions about whether the county can hold the Board accountable.

“The Election Board is not an entity that is operated under the authority of any apparatus of county government,” Stenger said. “And it directly impacts county voters. You don’t get any closer in terms of impact – because it’s the vote. So I think that whatever solution is brought to bear I think needs to address that issue. You need to have an entity that is somehow more locally connected.”

For his part, St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder said making the county’s election authority an elected office should be on the table. But he added that the four commissioners should be held more accountable, noting that Fey has largely done the talking for the board.

“We do need some accountability. We need some leadership when it comes to deal with these kinds of problems,” Harder said. “And they’ve had their fair share of them. And they need to come up with a plan to present to the public and to the media of how they’re going to fix this problem going forward. And I think that will help start restoring some confidence back to St. Louis County Election Board. We’re the largest county in the state when it comes to these issues and we should be the best at what we do.”

Harder expressed disappointment that the St. Louis County Council won’t hold hearings until May 10. County Council Chairman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, said that date fit the best with council members’ schedules.

“It would actually be a little bit of time saver, because now we’ll have some of the information in front of us when we meet,” O’Mara said.

Lawmakers intervene

Picking through the pieces from last Tuesday’s ballot shortage, a legislative task force is also working to suggest and see that changes are made before the August primaries. Its chair, Representative Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, says a change in election board leadership may be in order.   

“This is a much bigger scale than what occurred in 2014, when the director was then ushered out,” said Dogan, referring to when then-director Rita Days was forced out of her role. “I think that in order for there to be consistency, if that person had to leave, then someone should have to leave here.”

Dogan was unsatisfied with the first public hearing held by the task force Wednesday morning, a week after the ballot shortage.

“We had kind of a frustrating hearing I felt like, because I didn’t think we got to some of the bottom of the issues as to who was responsible for not double checking that the numbers of ballots were sufficient at each location,” said Dogan. “We heard the why but not the who.”

Dogan hopes to rectify that in a public hearing next week by calling on Secretary of State Jason Kander to explain his role in the election procedures. (Kander's spokeswoman told the St. Louis American that he and Dogan will continue to keep an "open dialogue" as the task force continues its work.)

“We want to have a plan from the secretary of the state as to how we’re going to get better procedures in place,” said Dogan.

Some lawmakers believe that the Secretary of State does not have the authority to intervene in local elections. Representative Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, says the public hearing was riddled with attacks on Kander, even though his involvement in the St. Louis County elections should continue to be limited.

“Missouri law is clear that the election authority has been designated to the local municipalities, the local counties,” said Peters. “Attempting to drag in the secretary of his state is completely unnecessary and it serves no purpose.”

Peters says the task force should focus their attention on discussions to make the county election board an elected office. He indicated that the task force’s inquiries into Kander’s office may be motivated by election year politics. Kander, a Democrat, is running against Republican incumbent Roy Blunt for a U.S. Senate seat this fall. 

Dogan says Blunt has not been involved in any of the task force’s decisions.

“This is an investigation done by the House of Representatives," said Dogan. "As a member of St. Louis County, and as someone who had their constituents disenfranchised by the incompetence [of election officials], I want to get to the bottom of this.”

The task force is expected to release a set of recommendations to county officials and the Secretary of State’s office at a later date.
Senior services tax heads to the ballot
Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Council on Tuesday provided final passage to a property tax hike to fund senior service programs.

St. Louis County Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, a Republican from Town and Country
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, voted against the senior services property tax.

The proposal would raise county property taxes by 5 cents per each $100 of assessed evaluation. And if county voters approve the measure in November, the proceeds from the tax increase will go into a fund that could be used for senior service programs.

For instance: A board overseeing the fund could give grants to bolster Meals on Wheels or transportation programs. It’s similar to the Children’s Service Fund, which the county implemented a little more than a decade ago.

Tax proposal passed by a 4-2 vote. Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, abstained from the vote, citing a desire for more specifics on where the proceeds would be spent. Harder and Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, voted no on the measure.

“I do have some concerns about applying another property tax to the very people that we’re trying to keep in their homes,” Wasinger said.

Stenger emphasized that voters will have the final say on the fate of the tax. And if the ‘no’ side makes a good case, he said, it won’t go into effect.

“We have an aging community,” Stenger said. “We have a desire, I believe, among the vast majority of St. Louis Countians to age in place. We want to live in the place and in the community where we grew up, where we raised our children. And those of us who are in that middle ground that have parents who are elderly, I think we want to see our parents age in place as well.

“Everybody will be able to voice their opinion at the polls,” he added. “And we’ll see whether this is a tax St. Louis Countians want. That’s the best test.”

A group steering the effort known as Seniors County of Greater St. Louis said they would try to put similar ballot measures up for a November vote in St. Charles County and St. Louis. If St. Louis County voters approve the tax hike, it will raise roughly $11 million a year.

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

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