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St. Louis County election board suspends top director for ballot blunder

St. Louis County Board of Elections director Eric Fey was suspended without pay on Tuesday.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Board of Elections director Eric Fey was suspended without pay on Tuesday.

The St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners suspended its top official, a move that comes after dozens of polling places ran out of ballots during this month’s municipal elections.

After the four-person election board went into closed session on Tuesday, it voted to suspend Democratic director Eric Fey for two weeks without pay. Commissioners also suspended elections coordinator Laura Goebel without pay for one week. The board did not exert any punishment against Republican director Gary Fuhr.

A statement sent by the board did not provide an explanation for its decision. But it was almost certainly triggered by widespread ballot shortages during the county’s municipal elections. Fey cited a database error for more than 60 places running out of ballots all across the county.

Fey and Fuhr declined comment when the board adjourned its meeting. Fey sent a text to reporters that he respects the board’s decision.

Commissioner John Maupin said he hoped the personnel decision would show that the board is serious about accountability. 

St. Louis County Board of Elections Commissioner John Maupin
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Board of Elections Commissioner John Maupin

“The employees who work here are very dedicated,” Maupin said. “And they are trying to do the best job they can. So whatever we do is only to try to enhance their ability to do their jobs. And the only job they have to make sure people can vote.”

This isn’t the first time the St. Louis County Election Board encountered serious problems. The board was forced to call a do-over election in 2012 between state Reps. Stacey Newman and Susan Carlson after some places were given the wrong ballots. And there were widespread paper ballot shortages during the 2014 midterm elections.

But this particular situation was exacerbated when electronic voting machines were unavailable. Fey said it was impossible to do the proper testing so close to the March presidential election.

Not enough?

Fey’s suspension dominated talk after Tuesday’s St. Louis County Council meeting. 

St. Louis Alderman Tammika Hubbard, Comptroller Darlene Green and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger worked together to keep the NGA in St. Louis.
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, right, says the election board needs to get its act together.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger emphasized that the Board of Election Commissioners is autonomous from county government, adding it’s “probably not something that’s appropriate for me to really comment on other than to say it’s certainly their decision.”

“It is an independent board and we all have to respect the decision that they made,” Stenger said. “I, like every other St. Louis Countian on the day – I think I said it then — I was boiling. It was something that should not have happened. And I trust that they will get this right. And I think we have to let the process play itself out.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — they really do need to get their act together.”

But others weren't satisfied. State Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, said in a statement that he was "surprised and disappointed that the St. Louis County Elections Commission only decided to suspend two individuals for a total of three weeks as a result of the disenfranchisement of hundreds if not thousands of St. Louis Countians."

On April 28, his task force released a number of recommendations to change how the Board operates. That includes possibly hiring directors who don't live in St. Louis County, as a way to get skilled people on the job that understand complicated elections.

And at least two County Council members expressed some disappointment about the decision not to fire anybody for ballot shortages.

“I guess I’m very disappointed in what the board decided,” said Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin. “I thought there would be stricter penalties, as well as someone to the take the blame for the mishap of a couple of weeks ago. … Someone should have lost their job over this. And just a one-week suspension or two-week suspension I don’t think makes any sense with this whole situation.”

(Harder added he wasn’t saying Fey should be fired, adding that “there are people who are below him probably that had direct responsibility with this.”)

Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, noted that former Democratic elections director and state Sen. Rita Days was fired after the 2014 ballot shortages. (It should be noted that the Newman-Carlson election had to be redone under her tenure. Days, though, was in her position for a longer period of time than Fey.)

St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, wants to raise the county's minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby

And while she emphasized that she respects Fey, Erby added many people in her African-American majority council district are wondering why Fey, who is white, didn’t face a similar punishment as Days, who is black.

“It’s difficult for me, because I know both Eric and Rita Days,” Erby said. “Sen. Days was fired for something similar, except not at this magnitude. Nothing near like this. And the people I represent, I’ve been hearing from them, want equal treatment. And I don’t think that’s too much for them to ask.”

Erby said numerous races in her district — and other parts of the county — were greatly affected when voters couldn’t cast a ballot. Maupin said losing candidates have challenged results in Berkeley, Overland, Sunset Hills and Town and Country.

“Somebody wasn’t doing something that they were supposed to be doing,” she added. “There were no checks and balances.”

When asked how the board could provide assurances that it can operate elections effectively, Maupin replied: “We have to make sure that the proper people are in the right jobs and the right protocols are in place and the right protocols are followed.

“We can’t come over here every day and tell somebody how to do his or her job, because we don’t know how to their jobs,” said Maupin, referring to four commissioners that are appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon. “We are an oversight board that makes policy and make sure that what we think needs to be done — simply full and fair elections — gets accomplished on Election Day. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

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