During the April 5 elections, voters in some St. Louis County precincts couldn't cast votes because of a shortage of ballots. A judge quickly issued an order keeping the polls open an extra two hours, but there was no delay in angry calls from both political parties for investigations.
Political opportunists will waste no time to use the ballot snafu as a truncheon to pound their opponents, regardless of what causes the investigations may uncover.
Meanwhile, this isn't the first time polls in St. Louis have been ordered to stay open later than other parts of the state. Missouri is no stranger to election anomalies.
Candidly, until the one-person, one-vote rule of the U.S. Supreme Court in the mid-1960s and mandatory voter registration, machine politics pretty much ran things, from top offices down to the ward bosses and precinct captains.
Here, I will recount some of the tales that have been passed to me during my three decades in the Capitol. These are hearsay, and I am accusing no one of any crime. There may be some exaggeration, but I suspect there is more truth in these tales than fiction. Some are innocent … others not so much.
A senator with whom I worked for many years – and who was one of the best natural politicians I ever met – loved to tell of the first election he voted in. As a young boy, it was his job to go early to the one-room country school house where his mother taught, fill the coal-oil lamps, wash the black board, dust the erasers and a build a fire in the wood stove.
One morning he found there a canvas booth, stacks of ballots and a box into which votes would be placed once the polls opened. By his account, the total for President Harry Truman was increased by a dozen or more votes, even though it would be more than a decade before he reached legal voting age.
A veteran lobbyist who was once in charge of a New Deal work program in Missouri recounted to me that on election day, using trucks and fuel owned by the federal government to shuttle from poll to poll, his government work crews could cast pre-marked ballots in more than a dozen rural precincts.
I worked with a gentleman who was one of the first black police officers in the capital city. He told me that he had been a ward walker in his early days and was responsible for delivering the black vote from his precinct. When his voters arrived, they were given a pre-filled ballot. In the booth, the voter switched the ballots and returned the blank, which was then filled in for the next voter. For his vote, each man got a pint of whiskey – half a pint for his wife's vote.
Voter registration required the schemes to become a little more sophisticated. One fellow from a workers organization recounted how he and his colleagues would meet in the evenings at a bar and work late into the night filling out absentee ballots. He claimed they were bagged and sealed right there, and transported by police for safety.
In the 2000 elections polls in the St. Louis area were briefly ordered to stay open because of voter registration snafus. It didn't take the opposition long to get a different judge to order the polls closed – but not before pre-recorded robo calls started going out featuring a political celebrity telling voters polls would be open late and to go cast ballots.
Questions were quickly raised about the recorded calls. The ballots cast late were commingled to ensure they were counted. The St. Louis issue was overshadowed by a national ordeal involving hanging chads and a presidential election ultimately decided by the Supreme Court.
Lawmakers this year are debating measures to ensure fair elections. Simply having an adequate number of ballots would be a good start.
After a career in journalism, Mark Hughes became a top, non-partisan policy analyst for Missouri government including the state Senate, state Treasurer's Office and the utility-regulating PSC. He has been an observer and analyst of state government since the administration of Gov. Kit Bond.