ST. LOUIS • A few weeks before the Aug. 2 primary, Reynal Caldwell Jr. got a knock on his door.
Caldwell said two people who said they were working for state Rep. Penny Hubbard’s campaign wanted to talk. He thinks they may have asked him to sign something. But he wasn’t quite sure what.
“I was just rushing to get them off my porch,” said Caldwell, 38, who lives in the Clinton-Peabody housing complex just south of downtown.
Regardless, an application for an absentee ballot was submitted in his name to the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners on July 19.
Presented with a copy of that application weeks later, Caldwell was confused. The document bore his signature. But some of the handwriting wasn’t his.
He didn’t check the box next to “Democratic Party,” he said. He would have asked for a Green Party ballot. He also said he did not claim to be incapacitated and unable to vote in person on Election Day.
But the application wasn’t the only document someone else filled out for him, Caldwell said.
A few days after that first visit, Caldwell said, four people who identified themselves as Hubbard campaign workers again came to his home. They asked: Has the absentee ballot arrived?
“I really don’t know who to vote for,” Caldwell recalled telling them. “The woman I was talking to said she’ll put down the same votes as hers.”
He signed the return envelope and handed over his blank ballot, he said. The campaign workers left with both, Caldwell said.
Although Caldwell said he never voted himself, records show his ballot was received by the Election Board and counted among the results in the Aug. 2 primary.
Caldwell’s encounter with the people who claimed to work on behalf of Hubbard is among numerous irregularities uncovered by an ongoing Post-Dispatch investigation into the race between Hubbard, the incumbent, and activist Bruce Franks Jr. for the 78th District Missouri House seat.
On Wednesday, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander issued a statement calling the Post-Dispatch's findings "very troubling."
After interviewing dozens of people and reviewing thousands of documents related to the Aug. 2 election, the Post-Dispatch has so far found:
• Caldwell and another voter both said people who identified themselves as Hubbard campaign workers filled out their ballots for them. Voting records obtained by the Post-Dispatch show that those individuals voted in the Aug. 2 primary. Under state law, “any person who assists a voter and in any manner coerces or initiates a request or a suggestion that the voter vote for or against or refrain from voting on any question, ticket or candidate, shall be guilty of a class one election offense,” a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
• At least 60 instances where two applications for an absentee ballot were submitted to the St. Louis Election Board on behalf of a single voter. Some voters contacted by the Post-Dispatch said they had not applied twice and had no idea why someone would have filled out a second application for them.
• More than a dozen voters said they never claimed to be incapacitated as their applications to vote absentee show. They said they don’t know who marked that box on their forms. Of the six legal reasons a person can vote absentee, only one — incapacity — does not require the voter to sign a notarized affidavit.
• Two former Election Board employees say that in previous election campaigns, Penny Hubbard’s husband, Rodney Hubbard Sr., routinely delivered stacks of absentee ballots to the Election Board offices. Missouri election law says only a second-degree relative can deliver ballots for another person. Yet the board accepted the ballots anyway, the former employees said.
The Hubbards declined repeated requests for comment over the past month.
Penny Hubbard’s lawyer said her client has done nothing wrong and denied any allegations of impropriety involving either Penny Hubbard or her husband. She said the campaign did not change or improperly handle voting records.
“There is absolutely no evidence Penny Hubbard or anyone associated with her forged documents,” said attorney Jane Dueker.
The results of the election have triggered formal reviews by the secretary of state’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office. On Tuesday, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said her office also has launched an investigation.
“The people of St Louis should have confidence that every vote counts and every vote carries equal weight under the law,” Joyce said in a statement. “I have assigned a team to pursue the facts and determine whether there is evidence of any criminal violations of Missouri law.”
Trial to start Wednesday
On Aug. 2, Franks won nearly 53 percent of the votes cast on Election Day in the 78th District, which runs along the Mississippi riverfront in St. Louis. But it was Penny Hubbard’s dominant performance among absentee voters — she won 416-114 — that gave her the victory. The final combined tally: Hubbard, 2,203 votes; Franks, 2,113 votes.
Franks, 31, is suing to overturn the election, claiming that Hubbard, 62, won because her campaign exploited the absentee ballot process.
A trial in St. Louis Circuit Court is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday.
David Roland, the attorney representing Franks, is expected to argue that 143 absentee ballots cast in person either by touch screen or paper ballot at the Election Board are invalid because they were accepted without an envelope, which state statute specifies must be included.
But overturning an election would be an “extraordinary remedy,” said Gregory Magarian, a professor and election law expert at Washington University.
“Courts are generally very reluctant to do so,” Magarian said.
Legitimate votes would be tossed out, he said. People may be discouraged from voting a second time. It is highly unlikely the same 4,316 people would vote again.
In the past few weeks, lawyers for the Hubbards have fought to keep election records secret and argued that voters who speak out could face criminal charges.
But experts interviewed by Post-Dispatch said that risk is minimal. No prosecutor would want to pursue charges against people who may have been misled, they said.
Voters are supposed to indicate their reason for voting absentee on their ballot envelope and — unless they are incapacitated — they must have the envelope notarized.
If voters say they are incapacitated in their applications, the board mails them a specific envelope, stating “NO NOTARY REQUIRED!”
In the Aug. 2 primary, the St. Louis Election Board received dozens of ballots in envelopes from supposedly incapacitated voters. But on those envelopes, voters didn’t indicate why they were voting absentee. Often there was only a signature.
Election Board workers said they accepted the ballots anyway as long as the voter had marked the “incapacity” box on the earlier application. They made no attempt to verify the claim with the voter.
In one small sample area of a few blocks along 14th Street between Chouteau and Park avenues, records show at least 25 people under the age of 50 applied for absentee ballots based on “incapacity.”
Just two out of a dozen of those applicants who were reached by a reporter Tuesday said that they were incapacitated. Several said they weren’t, and they expressed dismay that their names were on documents that claimed incapacity.
“I don’t know why they would have me ‘incapacitated,’” said Charlene Williams, 32, of the 1400 block of LaSalle Lane. She said she did recall signing something that she thought was a petition. “It was a paper they were bringing around.”
Erica Reed, 26, also of the 1400 block of LaSalle Lane, was bewildered why her name was on an application. She voted in person at her local polling place.
“I don’t have any incapacity,” she said.
Thelma Williams, 87, who lives in Carr Square, a housing cooperative run by Rodney Hubbard Sr., had three applications to vote absentee submitted on her behalf, according to St. Louis Election Board records obtained by the Post-Dispatch.
Williams is on a list of permanently disabled voters who automatically receive applications to vote absentee. She said she had no idea why two other applications were filled out in her name.
“I didn’t fill out but one,” Williams said. “I mailed mine in. It was mailed to me and I filled it back out.”
Oscar Mitchell, 76, lives in a senior housing complex outside the 78th District, but the complex falls within the boundaries of the St. Louis’ 5th Ward, where Rodney Hubbard Sr. was running to be the Democratic committeeman. (He, too, lost the Election Day tally but won his race on the strength of the absentee vote, where he bested Rasheen Aldridge, 231-96.)
Mitchell didn’t remember filling out two applications. As he looked over the one marked “duplicate” by the election board, he was surprised.
Then he recalled that a few months before the election, Penny and Rodney Hubbard visited his apartment complex. He said they asked him to sign a piece of paper that he thought was a change of address form, not an application to vote absentee.
“I didn’t know I was signing for no absentee,” Mitchell told a reporter. “Absolutely not.”
Some voters said people who identified themselves as Hubbard campaign workers told them that they could vote absentee if they were too busy to go to the polls. But that’s not a valid reason under the law. Others said they never intended to vote absentee — but somehow, applications for absentee ballots were submitted on their behalf anyway.
Patricia Wicks, who lives across the street from Franks in the Benton Park West neighborhood, said people who identified themselves as Hubbard campaign workers knocked on her door. She said they asked her to sign a sheet of paper. She thought the signature was to confirm that she was a registered voter.
Then the man asked for her Social Security number.
“I said, ‘I don’t give anybody my Social Security number,’” Wicks recalled saying.
Wicks said she received a phone call a few days later from a woman identifying herself as a Hubbard campaign worker. Had Wicks’ ballot arrived? she asked.
“I said, ‘No, why would I receive an absentee ballot?’” Wicks said. “I’m able to go to the polls.”
But on Aug. 2, Wicks discovered an absentee ballot in her mailbox, she said. Wicks didn’t know if she could legally go to the polls. So she didn’t vote at all.
Markeisha Franklin, 34, recounted a similar experience. She also remembered being visited by a man who identified himself as a Hubbard campaign worker who asked her to sign something. She thought she was making sure her address was correct, she said.
When she arrived at her precinct to vote, a poll worker told her she had registered to vote absentee.
“I’m like, ‘How?’” she said. “I always go in and vote.”
Franklin said she was allowed to vote after the worker verified that her absentee ballot had not been cast.
Delivering ‘stacks of ballots’
Patricia Bingham voted absentee because she planned to be out of town on Election Day, but she didn’t mail her ballot. She walked it down to the Election Board offices on Tucker Boulevard and voted in person. She did so, she said, because she has witnessed ballots being mishandled by the Election Board and possibly manipulated by politicians and their supporters.
Bingham lives in a downtown apartment complex for senior citizens — 37 of whom cast absentee ballots in the Aug. 2 primary.
As elections near, Bingham said, Hubbard campaign representatives attend monthly meetings at her building. They offer to help residents apply to vote absentee, and if they need help, to assist them in filling out ballots, she said.
“I think that’s a conflict,” Bingham said. “If you are a candidate or a candidate’s party, am I going to pick anybody else but you?”
Bingham also worked for the Election Board as a temporary employee in the absentee ballot department up until a couple of years ago.
Bingham said she witnessed Rodney Hubbard Sr. and other Hubbard campaign workers deliver stacks of ballots to the Election Board offices.
“There was a big fallout about that,” Bingham said. “He brought in a ton of them in a rack, a mail rack. We were telling him we couldn’t take it. There were words passed. You don’t just tell him you can’t do certain things.”
Missouri law requires that hand-delivered ballots be brought to the election board by the voter or a second-degree relative — such as a spouse, parent or grandparent.
Another former Election Board employee contacted by the Post-Dispatch separately described similar events in details that were nearly identical.
That employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Rodney Hubbard and other campaign workers for the family brought in “stacks of ballots,” sometimes so many that they used crates used by postal workers to deliver them.
The employee said this happened during elections in which the Hubbards, who are known for their ability to turn out large numbers of absentee votes, were on the ballot. Penny Hubbard has served as state representative since 2010, and runs every two years. Rodney Hubbard ran successfully for reelection as 5th Ward committeeman in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary on the same ballot as his wife.
And their daughter, Tammika Hubbard, has served as 5th Ward alderman since winning a special election in December 2011. Rodney Hubbard Jr. is a former state representative.
The employee, a former supervisor, said that when large numbers of ballots were delivered, she would email other employees and bosses.
“I’d say, ‘Hey, we’ve received numerous ballots from the Hubbard campaign and it seems pretty suspicious and they need to be reviewed.’” Her emails would go unanswered, she said.
When employees refused to accept hand-delivered ballots, Rodney Hubbard would complain directly to top Election Board officials, Bingham said.
Both former employees said ballots the department initially refused were sometimes slipped through the door, or mysteriously appear elsewhere in the office. Eventually, the employees said, the department would accept them.
Dueker said there was no way Rodney Hubbard Sr. would have attempted such a thing.
“They would handcuff him right there,” she said. “There is no way he would get away with that.”
Mary Wheeler-Jones, Democratic director of the Election Board, denied that any campaign worker ever hand-delivered stacks of envelopes. But the St. Louis Election Board doesn’t record the names of those who drop off ballots.
Last week, the Post-Dispatch reviewed roughly 550 absentee envelopes from the Aug. 2 primary. Eighty-eight were not postmarked — indicating that they likely were hand-delivered.
As a result of the Post-Dispatch’s inquiry into absentee voting procedures, Joan M. Burger, Election Board chairman, said Tuesday that absentee ballots brought into the office in their sealed envelopes will now be stamped with the date they were received, the printed name of the person who turned it in, that person’s signature and the person’s relationship to the voter.
Burger said it is the same process used by St. Louis County election officials.
Regarding the former employees’ statements about numerous ballots being dropped off, Burger said: “The board denies those allegations.”
Last week, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Julian Bush ruled the St. Louis Election Board violated the law when it refused to publicly release absentee ballot applications and ballot envelopes. The ruling allowed Post-Dispatch reporters and others — including Franks’ attorney — to begin verifying if ballots were properly cast.
Because of a scheduling conflict, Bush was replaced on the case by fellow Circuit Court Judge Rex Burlison.
Dueker and other figures within local Democratic Party circles have argued that attempts to contact absentee voters are forms of intimidation that could suppress voting in minority communities. They have also accused Franks’ campaign of bolstering the Republican Party’s push for tougher voter ID laws.
Franks said his lawsuit over the primary election for the 78th District was only an attempt to enforce existing laws, not create new ones.
“Somebody abused the process,” he said. “And I’m supposed to be OK with them abusing the process? ... I’m supposed to chill and say, ‘You know what? It’s cool. Y’all cheated, like y’all always do. I’ll lay down’ ... Nah.”
Others said the Hubbards, not the press or Franks, were intimidating people.
On Sunday, 10 minutes after a Post-Dispatch reporter interviewed a woman named Deirra Paster in the Clinton-Peabody public housing complex, Paster called the reporter and said a car had come by her block, and someone inside was taking photographs.
But so was Paster’s friend. Her photos show an unidentified woman driving a silver Toyota Camry and holding up a smartphone.
The Camry had a unique license plate, the kind issued for state representatives, with the number of each member’s specific district.
The plate read: “R-78.”
Kevin McDermott and Walker Moskop of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.