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Vote fraud? Blunt, Kander familiar with limits of Missouri secretary of state's powers

Jason Kander speaks at the Missouri Democratic Party's annual dinner, the Truman Dinner, at Busch Stadium.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo

Missouri’s already nationally watched contest for the U.S. Senate is getting swept into the St. Louis region’s latest spat of vote-related woes — including the current court fight over absentee ballots cast in the Aug. 2 primary for a legislative seat whose boundaries are within the city of St. Louis.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has been running a TV ad that seeks to tie those controversies to how his Democratic rival, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, has performed his job. Blunt also has raised general questions about Kander’s performance during his recent campaign stops.

Kander has pushed back.

The Blunt campaign contended in a statement that Kander “has presided over multiple significant voting irregularities and ballot blunders that threaten voter confidence and call into question his ability to do the job he already has.”

Kander has emphasized that the Missouri secretary of state has no direct jurisdiction over local election officials. In fact, it’s up to local prosecutors — not the secretary of state — to pursue any vote-fraud allegations.

“Since Jason took over as secretary of state, Missouri has climbed from 13th to 8th in the country for elections administration in the Pew Charitable Trust’s ratings,’’ Kander's campaign said, “and Jason has been credited for cutting $1 million from his office’s budget while providing more services than any of his predecessors.”

But in the wake of this week’s disclosures about questionable absentee ballots cast in the 78th District primary, Kander has announced that his office’s Election Integrity Unit is looking into the matter. Kander reaffirmed, however, that any investigations or legal action are up to local law enforcement.

Blunt faced absentee-ballot controversies as secretary of state

Blunt, a former Missouri secretary of state himself, is aware of  such challenges facing that office when local election jurisdictions come under fire. During his eight years in that job, from 1985-1993, Blunt was confronted with at least two absentee ballot controversies in St. Louis. In neither case was Blunt blamed.

In 1985, then-St. Louis Alderman Sorkis Webbe Jr. was among five people convicted of vote fraud because they had destroyed absentee ballots that contained votes for political opponents.

A few years later, it was Blunt who asked the U.S. attorney’s office in St. Louis to investigate vote-fraud allegations that had arisen from an academic examination of votes cast in some city wards.

The 1991 investigation turned up cases where several city voters had acknowledged casting multiple ballots, often on behalf of relatives who couldn’t get to the polls. No indictments were made.

Roy Blunt in 1997
Credit Wikipedia
Roy Blunt in 1997

In 1997, the Missouri Republican Party called for an overhaul of the St. Louis Election Board by then-Gov. Mel Carnahan. Then-Sen. Christopher S. Bond and former U.S. Attorney Stephen B. Higgins cited various controversies ensnaring board officials and employees.

In one case, the board's executive director was faulted for taking board equipment — including a computer — to her home. Board members also raised concerns about possible tampering with computer files to create absentee-ballot pages. No one was charged.

At the time, Blunt recalled his own challenges dealing with St. Louis election problems. He also added that he didn't blame then-Secretary of State Bekki Cook, a Democrat, for her handling of those matters.

Federal probe after 2000 election forced some city-election changes

Blunt’s son, Matt Blunt, also conducted a probe into allegations of St. Louis vote fraud during his tenure as secretary of state, from 2001-05 (before taking office as governor).

The younger Blunt alleged at one point that hundreds of votes may have been improperly cast in St. Louis — largely because judges had allowed unregistered people to cast ballots or to extend the hours of polling places after 7 p.m.

No indictments were made, although the probe appeared to contribute to a Justice Department investigation — during Republican George W. Bush’s tenure as president — that concluded that a more serious problem were the numbers of people wrongly turned away from city polls in the November 2000 election.

The Justice Department and the city of St. Louis reached a court settlement that resulted in changes in how the city maintained its voter rolls, so that would-be voters could be more easily verified to vote.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.