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Nixon names two new members of city elections board

Attorneys Erwin Switzer (back left) and Al Johnson (back right) listen to Gov. Jay Nixon on Sept. 6 as he introduces them as the chair and secretary of the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners.
Bill Greenblat | UPI

Gov. Jay Nixon has cleaned house at the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners, four days after a judge found its employees responsible for absentee ballot problems that led him to schedule a new election  in the 78th House District.

Nixon replaced Democratic chairwoman Joan Burger, a retired judge, with Democrat Erwin Switzer, an attorney and a former member of the now-defunct St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners. Republican Al Johnson, also an attorney, replaces the Republican secretary Andrew Schwartz, who owns an adhesives company. 

"Voters must have faith and confidence in the election process," Nixon said Tuesday during a news conference in St. Louis. "When that full and complete confidence in the election process is at risk, we must all work together to restore it. We have seen such a situation in St. Louis in the past few weeks. So today, I’m taking action."

Both Switzer and Johnson called their nominations an honor, and pledged to work together to bring back the trust of the voting public. 

"I commend Gov. Nixon for taking expeditious and decisive action to try and restore public confidence in our elections process here in St. Louis city," Johnson said. "There's only one thing that more important than the public having confidence in the people that are elected, and that is people having confidence in the process that are used to elect them."

 Switzer and Johnson will begin their terms immediately, but must be confirmed by the Senate to continue past January, when a new governor takes office. Lawmakers return to Jefferson City Sept. 14 for the veto session, but it's not clear if the nominations will be taken up then.

Burger and Schwartz were serving terms that had expired in 2013, though by law they were allowed to continue serving until being replaced.  Republican attorney Paul Maloney and Democrat Benjamin Phillips, a former aide to several St. Louis mayors, will continue to serve. Maloney's term is set to expire in January. Phillips is also serving an expired term. 

Nixon appointed Burger, Phillips and Schwartz in 2011 at a time when partisan tensions among the board members were running high. The governor said he saw no reason to replace any of them until now because they had been doing their jobs well.

"I think the two lawsuits where there were direct findings by courts that legal processes weren't followed necessitated this quick decisive and important action," Nixon said. "This about looking forward,not looking back." He did not explain why Phillips was allowed to remain on the board.

Bruce Franks, the losing candidate in the Democratic primary that led to Tuesday's changes, applauded the governor for the new appointments.

"The two appointments are a step in the right direction. Is that the say-all, be-all of change, probably not, but you have to start somewhere," Franks said. "The fact that the governor did act on it, even though he's on his way out, that'll speak to the community."

He said even though the laws governing absentee ballots may be outdated, that cannot be an excuse for officials to ignore the law. In his ruling on Friday, judge Rex Burlison made the same point.

"The election board's failures untied, and set adrift, the tedious and specific statutory process that the Missouri legislature previously put in place for absentee voting," Burlison wrote. "These tedious and specific statutory provisions cannot be ignored, nor circumvented, but must be specifically followed."

Nixon said he was willing to look at whether state law needed to be updated to allow individuals to cast an absentee ballot on electronic machines, but said it was important to restore confidence in the election process first.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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