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Franks sues over outcome of 78th District primary

Bruce Franks, center, walks with supporters to the St. Louis  courthouse to file an official challenge to his state House primary contest on August 17.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Bruce Franks, center, walks with supporters to the St. Louis courthouse to file an official challenge to results of his state House primary contest on Aug. 17.

A candidate who lost the Democratic primary for a Missouri House seat in north St. Louis has officially asked for a re-do.

The incumbent in the 78th District, Penny Hubbard, beat Bruce Franks on Aug. 2 by about 90 votes — a margin of victory that came solely from absentee ballots. Franks won among those who voted in-person on election day.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Franks alleged that at least 280 people who cast absentee ballots in the race did not qualify to apply for an absentee ballot. Previous court rulings, the lawsuit argues, make it clear that "voters' failure strictly to comply with the laws governing the use of absentee ballotsis sufficient grounds to justify ordering a new election."

"We came out and got 2,200 votes," Franks said. "That shows a community that’s ready for something different and ready for proper representation. The election wasn’t stolen from me. The election was stolen from the people of the 78th District."

Hubbard is part of a political dynasty in north St. Louis, especially the 5th Ward, where she and her husband Rodney serve as Democratic committeewoman and committeeman and their daughter Tammika is the alderman. About three weeks before the August primary, Franks and Dave Roland, his attorney, began raising questions about the heavy absentee turnout in elections where members of the Hubbard family are on the ballot, but the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners refused to investigate absentee ballot applications. 

Roland said he did not feel comfortable saying that the election was "rigged" to help Penny Hubbard keep her legislative seat.

"What we are confident of is that someone is misusing the absentee ballot system," Roland said. "We don't know who that person is. We know that abuses that happen tend to favor the Hubbards. I would not feel comfortable saying the Hubbards are behind this." He said he had heard of cases where individuals felt pressured to vote for the Hubbards, not just that the absentee application process was being abused. 

Penny Hubbard did not return a phone call for comment. In a statement, an attorney for the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners said the board is investigating complaints about the 78th District race, and had referred the allegations in Franks' lawsuit to state and federal prosecutors. A spokeswoman confirmed that the Missouri secretary of state's office is also investigating complaints about the race.

What's next

A challenge to a primary election runs on a very tight timetable, Roland said. Those who are being sued were served with a copy of the suit on Wednesday, and the judge has five days to schedule a preliminary hearing where Roland will present the "limited" evidence he has to persuade the judge to allow further investigation.

By state law, Roland said, all election challenges in primaries must wrap up by the end of August. A special election, if it's ordered, has to occur within 30 days of that order being issued. Further complicating the situation is another state law that says candidates cannot be placed on a general election ballot within six weeks of the election.

"Effectively, everything has to be completely  wrapped up, signed, sealed and delivered by Sept. 27," Roland said. "If the courts have not finished dealing with this by Sept. 27, it means that Bruce is not going to be allowed to be on the [general election] ballot even if he wins a special election."

Bruce Franks talks to Mary Wheeler-Jones, the Democratic director of elections for St. Louis, on August 17, 2016.
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Bruce Franks talks to Mary Wheeler-Jones, the Democratic director of elections for St. Louis.

Franks said it was always in the back of his mind that he would have to contest his election in court.

"If there are issues, this is the best way for it to happen because if I win just outright on Aug. 2 and none of this is brought to light, these are still injustices that go on in our city as a whole," he said. "Maybe this process was needed to bring light to the situation."

Read Franks' lawsuit here.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.