JEFFERSON CITY • Fighting off repeated calls that they resign, the officials in charge of St. Louis County elections vowed Wednesday to remain on the job to rectify irregularities that disenfranchised untold numbers of would-be voters in the county’s April 5 balloting.
“My plan moving forward is to continue to put controls in place and get this right, moving forward,” Democratic Elections Director Eric Fey told reporters at the conclusion of a sometimes contentious four-hour state House hearing. Legislators were investigating the circumstances that resulted in incorrect or insufficient ballots at more than 60 county precincts in elections to choose municipal officials and school board members.
“I’m absolutely heartsick over what happened,” Fey said.
Fey and his Republican counterpart, Gary Fuhr, however, refused to be swayed by pointed suggestions from St. Louis area lawmakers that they step aside.
“You should resign and those under you should resign. Period. Point blank,” said Democratic Rep. Joshua Peters, whose St. Louis district abuts the county.
Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis, D-Ferguson and Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, the legislators who summoned Fuhr and Fey to appear before the House Task Force on Election Procedures and House Special Committee on Urban Affairs, frequently echoed the same sentiment.
“There has to be grave consequences for what happened,” Dogan said.
The questioning at times assumed a racial edge, as Dogan and Curtis wondered aloud why elections commissioners fired former state Sen. Rita Days as elections director after polling places fell short of ballots in the county’s November 2014 general election.
Days is African-American. Fey, her successor, is white.
“If the precedent was set (by Days’ dismissal) then we need to follow due process,” Curtis said.
The task force and special committee will ultimately issue a report on the disclosures that surfaced during the fact-finding hearing. Dogan and Curtis say it will include recommendations on how St. Louis County can avoid the problems that have now plagued two elections in just under 18 months.
The election leaders face the potential of a more dire outcome next week when the Board of Election Commissioners — their bosses — convenes for the first time since April 5.
Fey declined to speculate on what awaits at the April 19 board meeting.
“Director Fuhr and I will present the same information that was presented today and they will make their decision based on that information,” he told reporters.
Election officials also have a May 10 hearing date to explain what occurred to the St. Louis County Council.
Republican West County Councilman Mark Harder, who pushed for an earlier hearing, attended the Wednesday morning session in a Capitol hearing room.
“I had to come to Jefferson City to find out what is going on in St. Louis County,” the councilman lamented.
Fey said a review by county election officials and an Election Integrity Unit inquiry ordered by Secretary of State Jason Kander traced the issues that materialized April 5 to a late February court order that necessitated ballot alterations in the tiny municipalities of Mackenzie and Uplands Park.
The state and county rely on separate systems to register voters and match the ballots with the proper polling places and precincts.
Those systems, ideally, are synchronized. In this instance, the integration didn’t mesh.
“We were proofing against a database that was incorrect and that we didn’t know until Election Day,” Fey acknowledged.
Fuhr and Fey said the situation was compounded by a federal mandate that electronic voting machines be used for the March 15 Missouri presidential primary.
The officials said the exclusive use of paper ballots on April 5 was driven by their determination that the three weeks between elections were insufficient to recalibrate the touch screen voting mechanisms.
Finally, sheer numbers conspired with the other circumstances as officials struggled and failed to meet the voting demands of 90 municipalities with 432 polling places and 323 “ballot styles” to accommodate a multitude of school and municipal elections and ballot measures.
“We handle as many different ballot styles as the rest of the state combined,” Fuhr told lawmakers. “Which is why we have issues.”
Fuhr and Fey weren’t the only officials on the hot seat. By the time the gavel ended over four hours of testimony, there were equal demands that Kander be held accountable along with Nixon, who selects members of the county election board.
The governor appoints four commissioners — two representing each party — to the St. Louis County Election Board. The commissioners in turn select a Republican (Fuhr) and Democrat (Fey) to direct election administration. The director of the same party as the sitting governor serves as lead director.
There was also support Wednesday for legislation to strip election board appointments from the governor and hand them to St. Louis County voters, a proposal Kander also has advanced.
The idea received no traction from Wes Wagner, the Jefferson County Elections Administrator. Jefferson County, like St. Charles and most other Missouri jurisdictions, elects the officials administering its polls.
Wagner nonetheless testified Wednesday that it doesn’t “make sense for the person running for the office to be counting the ballots.”
The demands for resignations, restructuring and election reform drew criticism from several legislators.
Rep. Lauren Arthur, D-Clay County, was one of several members decrying what she termed the “political theater” that played out over two hours Wednesday morning and a similar amount of time in the afternoon.
But Curtis, chairman of the urban affairs committee, made no apologies.
“You have one job and that is to allow people to vote,” he told the directors. “And when that doesn’t happen, there has to be consequences.”