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New absentee ballot restrictions could slow vote-counting in St. Louis County

St. Louis County's temporary absentee-voting office is in Maplewood's Deer Creek shopping center.
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio

With Missouri’s largest bloc of votes, St. Louis County often makes or breaks elections, determining which statewide candidates claim victory, and which ballot issues become law.

But with a St. Louis judge imposing more restrictions on absentee ballots, the impact in St. Louis County is significant – and may have statewide repercussions.

Democratic elections director Eric Fey, who oversees the county’s operations, says the judge’s mandate that all absentee ballots be put in individual envelopes – and that touch-screen voting be largely off limits for absentee voters – means that the counting process will take much longer.

“We will have to open and extract twice as many absentee ballots, almost twice as many than we had in the last presidential election in 2012,” Fey said.

As a result, he explained, “we are exploring with our legal counsel right now what options we may have, regarding when those ballots may be opened.”

At issue are the huge numbers of absentee ballots that St. Louis County often handles during presidential election years: at least 70,000, Fey said.

For the last decade, the county has been able to count all those votes on election day only because it has relied on the electronic touch-screen voting machines, which had been used for all absentee ballots cast in person at the Election Board’s offices. Ballots cast on those machines can be counted quickly.

The judge has tossed out that option, although – thanks to another judicial ruling last week – the county is offering touch-screens for people with physical or visual impairments. That puts the county in compliance with federal law.

Up to 40,000 additional paper absentee ballots

Fey said the county’s special absentee-ballot office – set up in the Deer Creek Plaza shopping center – has a couple of touch-screen machines for the disabled. But everybody else must vote on a paper ballot, which is then placed in an envelope to be opened and counted later.

The walk-in traffic accounts for about half of those 70,000-80,000 absentee ballots cast countywide. The rest are cast by mail, and always have been paper ballots that were removed from their envelopes and counted on election day.

As of Monday, almost a week after absentee balloting began, Fey said about 1,800 people had voted at the county's temporary office, and another 1,500 mail-in ballots have arrived at the board's headquarters.

Eric Fey in his office at the St. Louis County Election Board
Credit Jo Mannies/ St. Louis Public Radio
Eric Fey in his office at the St. Louis County Election Board

The county had relied on the touch-screen machines to allow it to swiftly tally the in-person absentee ballots. If those 40,000 or so ballots must be removed from envelopes and fed into optical-scan counters, the process could take hours, at minimum.

Fey said the county had three high-speed scan counters at its headquarters to handle all those paper ballots. Optical-scan ballots cast in polling places are fed into slower scan-counters at each polling site.


When asked if the larger absentee-ballot counting process might take days, Fey declined to speculate. But the implication is strong, given the election board’s legal inquiries into whether it can open those envelopes early and assemble the paper ballots so they can be fed into the scanners as soon as legally allowed.

County Election Board seeking more temporary staff

Fey did say that his office has asked St. Louis County officials, presumably County Executive Steve Stenger’s office, to approve “additional resources’’ – including money and extra temporary staff.

St. Louis County government oversees the budget for the Election Board, which otherwise is overseen by a four-person board of commissioners chosen by the governor.

This latest hurdle comes just months after Fey and his staff came under fire because of a snafu during the April elections that resulted in about 60 polling places running out of ballots. Some polling places had more than one election jurisdiction and the wrong number of ballots had been produced for some of them.

The county’s touch-screen machines also were unavailable for the April elections because election workers didn’t have time to reprogram them after the March presidential primary.

Fey said that the county board now has stricter review procedures to make sure that such a misstep doesn’t reoccur. The board also has changed its contract with the firm that produces the paper ballots so that extra ballots will now be stored at the board’s headquarters on election day, and can be sent out more quickly, if it appears that some polling places are about to run short.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.