Fewer St. Louis City residents voting absentee so far this year than in 2012


St. Louis County early voting numbers similar to 2012 election

ST. LOUIS – The two election authorities in St. Louis have both been criticized this year for controversies and mistakes.

However, whether or not that’s affecting early voter turnout depends on geography.

Mary Wheeler-Jones, the Democratic director for the St. Louis City Election Board of Commissioners, said the city has experienced a decline in absentee voting though time will tell.

St. Louis City had 13,799 absentee ballots cast before Election Day in 2012, roughly 7,000 of those being walk-ins and almost another 7,000. So far this year, Jones said only about 1,900 walk-in absentee votes have been cast with 5,600 absentee ballots being sent out for mail-in votes. Even assuming every absentee ballot sent gets mailed back, another 6,500 St. Louis City residents would have to vote as in-person absentee over the next 11 days to reach 2012 levels of absentee voting.

Jones said that the election board was experiencing the beginning of a surge in turnout, but she was unsure if that meant they would reach 2012 levels.

“I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but it would have to be a lot of people that would have to walk in,” she said.

A bungling of the in-person absentee voting process played a crucial role in St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison’s decision to grant a special election between outgoing Rep. Penny Hubbard and Bruce Franks for Hubbard’s House seat. Although Franks’ attorney primarily argued that Hubbard had engaged in absentee ballot voter fraud, Burlison said there was no substantial evidence she or her campaign had done so. However, Burlison determined the St. Louis Election Board of Commissioners had erred in not using absentee ballot envelopes for in-person absentee voters, violating Missouri law in the process.

Franks handily defeated Hubbard in the special election, after narrowly losing to her in the initial primary, and the ruling led Gov. Jay Nixon to appoint two new commissioners to the board for the Nov. 8 election.

Jane Dueker, Hubbard’s attorney during the case, initially called the judgment against her client “a nightmare” because it could breed a lack of confidence in the absentee process.

If the number of absentee in-person voting has been depressed somewhat by uncertainty in the system while early voting has increased nationwide this year and skyrocketed in certain states, Dueker’s nightmare may be a reality.

However, Erv Switzer, one of the two board commissioners added by Nixon in September, said he did not see a connection between the lower turnout and the mistakes made in the Franks-Hubbard case.

“I find it interesting because it seems there’s more media attention directed to this race, but I’m not sure why that hasn’t converted to a greater number of absentee ballots,” he said, encouraging St. Louisans to get out and vote. “There’s nothing that any citizen in the United States can do that is more important than participate in the government. We have a number of opportunities to do that, but every four years, we all get to choose the boss. And I think that’s an opportunity that everyone who can take advantage of that… should do so.”

The numbers tell a much different story in St. Louis County. In April’s municipal elections, some precincts in St. Louis County ran out of paper ballots early on the morning of the election, and many electronic voting booths were not properly configured after the March presidential preference primary. Those problems caused some St. Louis County residents to essentially lose their vote.

Despite those problems, Eric Fey, the director of elections for the St. Louis County Election Board, said that voter turnout was at nearly the exact levels as it was in 2012. St. Louis County has had 29,588 absentee ballots cast (both mail-in and in-person) for the Nov. 8 election 11 days out. Eleven days before the 2012 election, St. Louis County had 29,561 cast, a near identical sum.

“I don’t know know if it could get much closer than 2012,” Fey said. “It’s always encouraging to see people coming out to vote.”