Though he came closer than any Republican mayoral candidate in more than a generation, Jerry Wamser wasn't exactly surprised when he lost in 1981 to Vince Schoemehl Jr.
St. Louis long had been as solidly Democratic as it was culturally conservative, but Wamser doubted that ideology was the only influence on elections. He believed that the system was rigged against challengers, and he wasn't alone. Even some Democrats agreed with Wamser, but proof was another matter. Investigation after investigation into voter fraud had fizzled, including a probe by then-Circuit Attorney George Peach, who came up with nothing just one year before Wamser lost.
No indictments didn't mean no problems. Prompted by concerns on the part of politicos such as Peach and Wamser, the city's morning daily, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, exposed a disgusting pattern of fraud in city elections just one month after the 1982 primary. Then-Gov. Christopher "Kit" Bond heaped praise on the newspaper, but Bond was a Republican and the Globe-Democrat -- well, the conservative Globe-Democrat had a reputation for using its news pages to advance political causes. So when Wamser -- a defeated GOP candidate, appointed to the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners by a Republican governor -- complained about vote fraud, surely sour grapes and his political persuasion made him prone to hyperbole. After all, he was claiming that fraud was so widespread and safeguards so lax, he could probably register his dog Exeter P. Wamser to vote.
Exeter was never registered, but a dozen years later, a different dog did make it onto voting rolls.
Ritzy was trotted out by Bond, now the state's senior senator, last year during the latest investigations into voter fraud. Registered during a 1994 voter-registration drive paid for by gambling interests, Ritzy never voted. After receiving a perfunctory registration notice from the election board, Ritzy's owners, who had used their pet's name instead of their own in the telephone book, did the right thing and told the board that this new voter wasn't a yellow-dog Democrat, just a dog.
But Ritzy showed what could have happened in a one-party town where politics are bruising, the number of registered voters surpasses the voting-age population and the election board can't be trusted to run an election.
On Nov. 7, 2000, when every vote really did matter, indifference and incompetence finally caught up with St. Louis. The city became a national laughingstock thanks to an election board built on patronage and politicians who had long countenanced a system that did just one thing well: keep the powers that be in place.
Hundreds of legitimate voters weren't allowed to cast ballots because their names were on the city's list of inactive voters -- they had moved without notifying the election board or the board had botched paperwork. City circuit judges compounded the crisis by keeping the polls open late and signing hundreds of court orders allowing unregistered voters to cast ballots. By day's end, police were dispersing crowds of would-be voters from board headquarters while Bond pounded a podium and accused Democrats of stealing the election. "An outrage!" he thundered.
Here was a fiasco too big to ignore -- even in St. Louis.
The FBI was soon poking around while Bond played point man for federal election reforms aimed at preventing fraud. The heat had never been so high. But, this being St. Louis, it wasn't altogether surprising when more than 3,000 suspect voter-registration cards arrived at election-board headquarters less than four months later, on the registration deadline for the 2001 primary. Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, whose mother, Nellene Joyce, was among the dead political figures whose names appeared on the bogus cards, immediately launched a criminal investigation, which is pending more than a year later.
Whether someone is pulling strings in an elaborate attempt to steal elections today is anybody's guess, but it's happened before. The city's election board bumbled as badly as ever in the first election of the 21st century, and the city has a history of politicians who exploit every crack.
So far, Joyce has netted just three small fish, each charged last month with submitting phony registration cards. But several election-board officials and at least one elected city official, Comptroller Darlene Green, have been called before a federal grand jury that has recently concluded the investigation that's now back in Joyce's lap.
Meanwhile, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys based in Washington, D.C., still are digging into the 2000 election.
Given the city's history, anything could happen.
Over the past 20 years, mob bosses, drug kingpins, street-corner thugs and even a few politicians have been implicated in vote-fraud schemes. But underlying problems that are the petri dishes for electoral corruption have remained unsolved.
At least someone smells change.
"This is the first time this is being taken seriously," Wamser says.
"Prior to Jennifer Joyce, it was hard to sustain interest by the local prosecutor in serious instances of election fraud."
No one knows just how many bogus votes may have been cast in 2000, nor does anyone know how many legitimate voters were denied the right to cast ballots. But the chaos was perfect for stealing an election.
The election board blundered first.
Voter rolls had swelled to the point where the number of registered voters exceeded the number of voting-age adults in the city, according to an investigation by Bond's office. More than 24,000 people registered to vote in St. Louis were also registered elsewhere in Missouri. Voters had moved out of the city but hadn't notified the election board, which had no mechanism in place to delete names when voters registered somewhere else. The board also couldn't keep records straight within the city. Bond's staff found at least 335 cases in which the same person was registered twice within the city limits.
Voters whose notice-of-election cards were returned to the board by the U.S. Postal Service were placed on an inactive-voters list. There was no way of knowing how many of the 54,589 names on the list were bona fide voters, how many were dead and how many no longer lived in St. Louis. Approximately 5,000 names were listed twice. The potential for catastrophe was huge -- the election board had added 28,000 voters to the inactive list in 2000 alone -- and should have been obvious. If even a small fraction of the voters on the list went to the polls, there would be huge trouble. Despite the numbers, the board treated the inactive list as an asterisk.
People on the list could still vote if they presented poll workers with proof of address, but first they had to convince poll workers that they were on the list, which the board kept at downtown headquarters instead of precincts. Telephone lines jammed as election judges at overcrowded polls flooded the central office with calls to check names against the inactive list. With the phones not working, hundreds of voters headed to headquarters, only to find long lines that barely moved.
In short, voters found themselves in electoral gridlock. There was a way out. Under state law, anyone who gets a court order signed by a circuit judge must be allowed to vote. Judges stationed at the election board proved all too willing to sign, according to Secretary of State Matt Blunt, a Republican, whose staff reviewed 357 affidavits from voters who got court orders after the board couldn't verify that they were registered voters. Just 15 affidavits met the legal standard, according to Blunt. St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Calvin, who presided that day, has said all of the orders issued were legal, but affidavits reviewed by the secretary of state included such lame excuses as "I want a Dem. president" and "Forgot to register by deadline."
St. Louis County judges also signed hundreds of questionable court orders, according to Blunt and Bond. But the county didn't have city Circuit Judge Evelyn Baker, who turned a big mess into an overwhelming one by ordering that city polls remain open until 10 p.m., three hours later than allowed by law.
Baker's decision was clearly at odds with state law. She was persuaded by Democrats who argued that the election board had made it impossible for voters to cast ballots. "I feel very strongly that people should be able to exercise their right to vote," she explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a postelection interview. It was a curious rationale, given that in 1989 Baker had rejected a request by the election board to delay a primary after 11 inches of snow paralyzed the city on Election Day eve. Schools were closed, but, because of Baker's ruling, the polls opened, with dramatically lower turnouts than had been expected. "It was in the teens," recalls Wamser, who was then Republican chairman of the election board and had anticipated a 38 percent turnout.
Baker's decision to keep the polls open in 2000 was overturned about an hour later by a state appeals court, which ruled that extended hours wouldn't solve disenfranchisement problems but would permit voting by people who shouldn't be allowed to. Voting continued for an extra 45 minutes, and the court wrote, "It is probably impossible to know how many voters were improperly permitted to cast a ballot after the polls should legally have been closed."
Extended polling hours, especially in a town like St. Louis, were the last straw for Bond. He sent his report to former U.S. Attorney Audrey Fleissig, who kicked it to Washington, D.C., before she was replaced by Raymond Gruender. Blunt last summer issued his own report, which mirrors Bond's findings. The feds are still investigating but so far haven't made a case against anyone. Gruender, an appointee of the current Bush administration, says he's out of the loop and always has been when it comes to the 2000 election. "I have no idea what the Department of Justice is doing there," Gruender says. "It's not something that's ever been on my plate."
Besides pointing out bad decisions by judges and accusing Democrats of flooding polls with unregistered voters, Bond and Blunt say ballots were cast by dead people, felons and people who voted more than once. The FBI has investigated the charges but so far hasn't made a case against anyone.
Some of the GOP charges have been debunked. For example, the Post-Dispatch determined that 79 voters whose home addresses appeared to be empty lots turned out to be a case of bad recordkeeping by the city assessor's office, which listed occupied homes as vacant property. Other allegations remain just that. Nine months after Blunt issued his report, the election board is still working on formal responses to the accusations.
Blunt's staff concedes they may have goofed when they charged that 45 election judges who worked the presidential election weren't registered voters. Keena Carter, the board's Democratic assistant director of elections, says the secretary of state's office, which used paper records supplied by the board, mishandled the data and that the 45 names contained in Blunt's report are all misspellings. "They're typos," Carter insists. "I'm just assuming that whoever typed this list up, they didn't do their proofreading. When I did this, I found that every judge was registered."
In his report, Blunt -- who wants the Legislature to grant him subpoena powers to investigate fraud -- trumpeted his staff's research, boasting that they had used not just names but birthdates, Social Security numbers and home addresses in determining that election judges weren't registered. But Chris Holloway, a Blunt aide who investigated the election-judge issue, admits Carter could be right. "It's possible," Holloway says. "Basically, if the name was misspelled, it [the computer] wouldn't have recognized it as a match of somebody who was registered in St. Louis. We need a little more time to go back through and double-check these ourselves and see what we come up with." The lack of certainty lends credence to claims that Blunt's charges are more political bluster than a sober reading of facts. After all, the election board gave him all the data needed to reach a solid conclusion.
Blunt's office could still be right. Carter gave the Riverfront Times a list of corrected spellings, but nine of the 45 names she provided are spelled exactly the same as in Blunt's report. Democratic director of elections Sheila Greenbaum says she doesn't know the truth. "That's something I would think they're pretty careful about, but I can't swear to you it didn't happen," she says. If true, the accusations would be violations of state law, but Joyce says she's focused on the March 2001 primary, not the 2000 general election. "No, I had not been aware of that violation, or if I had, it's receded into my mind," she says.
Blunt also came up with a list of 14 homes, all but one on the North Side, that he suspects of containing more fictitious voters than breathing ones. The homes drew Blunt's attention because they're all modest and all listed as the legal voting address for at least eight voters, but his investigators didn't go further than driving by the abodes.
No matter what the secretary of state might think, Rosie Lee Henderson says she and her 14 children exist.
Henderson's 5th Ward home, one of seven on Blunt's list visited by the Riverfront Times, may be humble, but it is also crowded. She has 14 children, and this is the closest they have to a permanent address. "My kids may be gone away from here maybe a month or two and they'll be back," she explains as sons and daughters wander in and out of the kitchen while grandchildren play in the front yard. Explanations were similar at other homes on Blunt's list.
State voting records show that eight of the Hendersons cast ballots in the presidential election and last year's primary, but they sometimes wonder whether their votes count. "I don't think very many people have faith in voting," Henderson says. Her daughter Betty is one. "Voting don't make no difference," Betty Henderson declares.
"Whoever they want to win, they're going to give it to them anyway. It's a fraud. Everywhere you go, it's a fraud."
At the very least, Republicans who went ballistic after the 2000 election were right in one respect: The city's electoral system was vulnerable.
The presidential election showed that the election board couldn't administer any kind of election, clean or crooked. Even former Secretary of State Rebecca Cook, a Democrat whom Republicans dismissed as overly kind, found that 135 unregistered voters were allowed to cast ballots by election judges who ignored both state law and instructions from higher-ups. Circuit judges who were supposed to act as safety nets couldn't make the right calls. And the citywide primary was just four months away.
With so much at stake, 14 monitors from Blunt's office and another 22 from Joyce's shop descended on polling places during last year's primary, like United Nations monitors sent to a Third World country. At least two from Blunt's office watched board headquarters continuously from 5:15 a.m.-11:30 p.m. The Justice Department also sent observers from its Civil Rights Division.
The election board can claim credit for catching about 3,800 suspicious registration cards, most turned in by a group called Operation Big Vote, one month before the March 2001 primary. The board called Joyce, who had the case in front of a city grand jury within a week. Two weeks before the election, St. Louis police served search warrants at Big Vote headquarters and the home of Nona Montgomery, director of the registration drive. The cops arrived without warning, raiding Montgomery's house at 12:40 a.m. Search-warrant records detailing exactly what was found remain under court seal. Her attorney says the raid contributed to his client's refusal to testify before the grand jury.
"For them to do something at such a late hour really exhibits unprofessionalism," says lawyer Herman Jimerson. "Why should she go in front of the grand jury when the government has not in good faith showed that she was not in fact a target?"
Jimerson says his client hasn't done anything wrong, and the fact that she hasn't been charged with a crime proves it. Jimerson says he believes that workers who submitted a certain number of registration cards may have gotten bonuses, which created an incentive to lie. He declines to make Montgomery available for an interview. "It appears they should have been a little more cautious in who was trained, who was told to do what and ensure every proper protocol was met," he concedes.
The three people whom Joyce charged with voter fraud last month aren't masterminds. Paul Lamont Julion, charged with one felony count, told police he made up the name on one bogus card. His sister Eliza Julion, accused of seven violations, has confessed to forging signatures on cards, registering the same person twice, making up names on three cards and registering her boyfriend, who was incarcerated and ineligible to vote. Michelle Robinson, charged with nine counts of fraud, admitted registering voters who were already registered, as well as dead political figures from a list she says she got from her boyfriend, Anthony Hibler, who told her that he got the list from "someone involved in politics."
Hibler is hardly the political sort. With a criminal record dating back to the early 1980s, he's been arrested more than a dozen times for murder, robbery, assault, burglary, trespassing, drugs and illegal firearms. He's usually beaten the rap, but he's been shot three times and has at least five felony convictions. He was last released from prison in 2000 after serving federal time for unlawful gun possession. Hibler hasn't been charged with an election crime. Joyce won't say why. "I really can't comment as to any ongoing investigations, except to say it is continuing," she says.
Joyce is on a mission in a political minefield. She is a Democrat whose parents were aldermen. Former Mayor Clarence Harmon notes that her father, Ed Joyce, was a lawyer who represented Eugene Slay, a cousin to Mayor Francis Slay, after he was charged with corruption in the 1980s in connection with a cable-television-franchise scandal. Jeff Rainford, Slay's 2001 campaign manager and now the mayor's chief of staff, did not return calls from the Riverfront Times.
"She [Joyce] has long been tied to that political machine," says Harmon, who doesn't care who thinks he's a sore loser. "She'll do the popular thing, the public thing, but we don't expect a lot from her in terms of her real ability to deal with political corruption."
Joyce swears politics won't influence her investigation.
"If it has any effect on me, I think that it makes me more committed to going after this kind of stuff," Joyce says. "I was always proud to be able to say my parents were politicians. When I got older and realized it had a negative connotation, it was surprising and disturbing to me. Anything that gives the electoral process a black eye I take a dim view of and will do whatever I can within the limitations of my office to go after it."
A source familiar with the local and federal probes says there's more to this than a wayward voter-registration drive.
"There's more than just Operation Big Vote stuff going on," says the source. "There are other folks involved that are outside Operation Big Vote that are seriously being looked at."
Former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., who lost to Harmon in 1997 and came up short again in 2001, says that the charges filed by Joyce prove allegations of serious voter fraud, the kind that can sway an election, are overblown. "The question becomes 'What was this all about?'" he says. "It initially started out being some 3,500 cards, and at the end of the day it's down to 17."
Bosley Jr. says he knows of no one connected with his campaign who was called before the grand jury. Long seen by political opponents as a beneficiary -- if not instigator -- of voter fraud, Bosley Jr. praises Joyce for her handling of the investigation. "It appears that Jennifer Joyce was the only voice of deliberation here," he says. "She even went so far as to call a press conference to say that this had nothing to do with Freeman Bosley. She was the only one that stepped forward to say that when other people, it seemed as if they were engaging in a feeding frenzy."
Not everyone has enjoyed such exoneration.
During the first of two March 4 press conferences called to announce the criminal charges, Joyce told reporters that no mayoral candidates had been implicated. When Joyce during a second news briefing said the investigation had uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing by "any candidates," an aide who was at her side leaned toward her and whispered "mayoral." Joyce paused midsentence and backtracked, this time saying "mayoral candidates."
The distinction was huge but was missed entirely by most of the media, which didn't consider the possibility that a big shot other than Bosley Jr. or perhaps even Slay might have been caught up in the investigation. But Comptroller Darlene Green, who handily won re-election last year, has testified before the grand jury.
Just why Green was called to testify and what she may have said remains a mystery. Green declined to comment on her testimony.
A relative newcomer to St. Louis politics, Green has managed to stay mostly outside the fray -- and her name has never surfaced in connection with any election irregularities -- until now [Laura Higgins, "The Accidental Politician," Oct. 25, 2000]. "I would be surprised if she did anything directly," Harmon says.
Joyce refuses to say whether she's looking at nonmayoral candidates. "I don't have anything to say about that," she tells the Riverfront Times. "I'm not going to speculate as to what is going on with our investigation. If and when charges are filed, we'll announce them at that time. But I don't want to compromise what we're doing by discussing it."
Others called before the grand jury include Keena Carter; her Republican counterpart, Jeanne Bergfeld; and Pearlie Evans, who managed Lacy Clay's 2000 campaign and was a longtime aide to his father, former U.S. Rep. Bill Clay. As election-board employees, Bergfeld and Carter delivered stacks of election-board documents subpoenaed by the FBI, which demanded records showing voters who cast ballots, people whose attempts to vote were denied and voter-registration records dating from Oct. 1, 2000, to the registration deadline for the 2001 primary.
Carter won't discuss her testimony. Bergfeld did not return our call. Evans, who had run Operation Big Vote registration drives before Montgomery, hasn't done anything wrong and isn't a target, says her attorney, Jerryl Christmas. He says Evans gave the grand jury background information on Operation Big Vote. He said she does not want to speak with the media.
Exactly who was behind last year's Operation Big Vote registration drive remains a mystery. Montgomery had worked for Bosley Jr.'s campaigns in the past, and she is the niece of his 2001 campaign manager. But Bosley Jr., whose campaign stood to benefit from high turnout in North Side neighborhoods targeted by Operation Big Vote, says he doesn't know who funded the registration drive. He does say it all began in a North Side bar.
"A guy comes in this lounge and says, 'Who wants to do voter registration?'" says Bosley Jr., who has spoken with relatives of the accused. "The guy says, 'Meet me at the Sears building, Saturday morning at 8 o'clock.'" About 50 people showed up, Bosley Jr. says, and each person was given 25 cards, which were marked with the person's initials and turned in at the end of the day, even if the cards were blank. "Somebody took them and filled them in," opines Bosley Jr., who cites clumsiness as evidence that his campaign wasn't involved. He has no suspects but says someone was trying to make all black people, not just himself, look bad. "White people don't vote for black people," he says. "So why would black people register white people? Why would black people register dead white people? These are obvious names. Why would a black person want to register Nellene Joyce?"
If nothing else, the registration drive was botched, and no one wants to take credit for that. Operation Big Vote is a loose-knit collection of nationwide chapters under the umbrella of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, based in Washington, D.C. Melanie Campbell, coalition director, says she's never heard of Montgomery or the three people facing criminal charges. "I've heard about it, and I don't know those people," Campbell says. "They were not authorized to be representing Operation Big Vote. What it has done for me is, I know we have to, as an organization, work on some ways to make sure people can't just utilize the name."
Campbell says Howard Taylor is the point man for Operation Big Vote in St. Louis. Taylor also says he hadn't heard about the voter-registration drive until he read about it in the newspaper.
"I wasn't sure whether they were legit or what," Taylor says. As a coordinator for Operation Big Vote since 1978, Taylor has arranged rides to polls, set up get-out-the-vote telephone banks and organized neighborhood canvasses to comb the North Side for citizens who need reminders to cast ballots. All do-gooders with a passion for democracy are welcome, but they don't get paid. "We go out and get volunteers -- Boy Scouts, church organizations, senior citizens," Taylor says. One thing Taylor doesn't do is organize voter-registration drives.
"I have never done that," he says with a slight chuckle that comes from watching elections in St. Louis. "I never want to get involved with that. We stay as far away from that as possible. I leave that to other people because of the taintedness involved."
Just about anything that can go sideways in an election has in St. Louis.
During the past century, the city hasn't gone a decade without at least one vote-fraud scandal: dead voters casting ballots, voters registered from vacant homes, votes cast by felons and candidates who received no votes in precincts where voters publicly swore that couldn't be true. A dozen years before "chad" became a household word, St. Louis politicians were arguing in court over tiny pieces of paper left hanging from punch-card ballots.
Some of the most diabolical characters in city history have been implicated in vote fraud.
Even as he controlled an estimated 40 percent of the city's cocaine trade, Jerry Lewis-Bey, head of the Moorish Science Temple, was delivering North Side votes by any means necessary. The election board threw Lewis-Bey and 23 associates off the voting rolls in 1983 after they claimed a 20-by-25-foot single-story building -- their "spiritual home" -- as their legal voting address.
But it was no big deal. Temple members were subsequently rewarded with patronage jobs at City Hall and a $109,000 city grant to run youth centers. Vince Schoemehl, who won his second term as mayor in 1985 with temple members as paid campaign workers, later claimed he had no idea that he'd been dealing with criminals. No one went to jail until 1993, when Lewis-Bey and six henchmen were convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy. Noting that the group was linked to more than a dozen murders, the St. Louis police chief called them "urban terrorists."
In 1982, a minister who signed 13 absentee-ballot applications as a witness was arrested and charged with fraud after people whose names were on the applications told investigators they'd never asked to vote absentee -- Wamser recalls that the minister got a suspended sentence and orders to address civic groups on the evils of vote fraud. A month after the election, the Globe-Democrat showed that the crooked reverend was just the iceberg's tip. The paper documented rampant abuse that included buying and selling of absentee ballots and intimidation of elderly and poor voters by campaign workers.
Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr., who is still in office, told the Globe-Democrat that Alvin Wilson Sr., the brother of an alderman, once offered to sell him a shopping bag filled with signed applications for absentee ballots that could be converted into votes. The senior Bosley (father of the ex-mayor) says Wilson, one of his paid campaign workers, told him he tricked people into signing the applications by telling them they were applying for free house paint. Bosley Sr. didn't bother calling police, though he told the newspaper that he looked in the bag and telephoned some of the people whose names were on the applications, telling them to call the cops if Wilson came by again.
The Globe-Democrat stories sparked a circuit-attorney investigation. But 7th Ward Democratic committeeman Sorkis Webbe Jr. wasn't worried.
Even as the circuit attorney searched for fraud, Webbe, who was gearing up to run for alderman, saw no need to change the way he conducted business. "I'm a rat-fuckin' street bum, and I'll take this motherfucker's head right off his shoulders," Webbe told a trusted operative as he discussed plans for a former ally who had fallen out of favor. "That's been our nature, that's been our survival all our life. You think we're gonna change just because it's 1983? We've been in that ward for thirtysomethin' years." Sure enough, the circuit attorney's investigation went nowhere. But the operative, a paid FBI informant, had taped the conversation. Thanks to electronic surveillance, Webbe was convicted on federal charges that included tampering with absentee ballots during a 1980 election.
Harmon, who finished a distant third behind Slay and Bosley Jr. in last year's primary, says he wouldn't have won in 1997 if he hadn't sent observers to polls, a move Bosley Jr.'s campaign dismissed as voter intimidation. But there were unsettling signs before the election. For one thing, the number of absentee ballots requested was higher than the number requested for three previous mayoral primaries combined.
Harmon is convinced he would have put up a better showing last year if he'd made the same poll-watching effort that he did four years earlier. Outside observers weren't sophisticated enough to catch shenanigans, he says. "It's off the scale," Harmon complains. "It's still, in a lot of ways, like it was in the 1920s." Now a lecturer at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, Harmon admits that such statements open him to accusations of sour grapes, but so be it. "When you're out of it, you can say it better," he says. "Somebody has to say it. It just needs to get changed."
Among other things, Harmon and others who've witnessed decades of elections say, some voters repeatedly cast ballots, not even bothering to change clothes when they re-enter polling places in full view of election judges. Even those who believe the city is cleaner than ever admit there's some truth there.
"I would be less than candid if I didn't say I think there are problems and fraud," says lawyer Don Wolff, who sued the board last year on behalf of black civic leaders who say the board has disenfranchised legitimate voters on the pretext of preventing fraud. "I believe those stories are true, a lot more in the 1980s than in 2000. I think there are people who did that then. I think there are less people doing it now."
But even a small amount of fraud can make a big difference. "It doesn't take a lot," says Ken Warren, a St. Louis University political-science professor who conducts polls for the media and political campaigns. "A lot of ward races are decided by a couple hundred votes." Warren is convinced that voter fraud runs rampant.
"Does a bear shit in the woods?" he asks. "It's been going on forever, and no one ever does anything about it."
A decade ago, the election board launched an investigation into a 1991 school-board race after Warren insisted that high voter turnout in the North Side and near-unanimous support for one slate of candidates among those voters couldn't be explained by anything other than fraud. The investigation didn't support Warren's charges of a massive conspiracy. Just 36 of 9,195 voter signatures analyzed by a handwriting expert proved fake. Nonetheless, the system was susceptible to fraud. "Vote fraud did occur in ... the school board election," investigators wrote. "The precise extent of the fraud is unknown, but it was most certainly not enough to have changed the outcome of the election."
Board investigators in 1992 identified many of the same problems flagged by Republicans 10 years later. Three election judges admitted casting ballots for absent relatives but were not prosecuted. The election board had not been purging voter rolls on a monthly basis, as required by state law. More than 1,600 dead people were registered to vote in St. Louis, and 181 of the city's voters were also registered to vote in Illinois. Investigators found 147 inmates on the voting rolls. Hundreds of felons on probation or parole were also registered, and 69 had cast ballots in the school-board election. Keeping felons off the voting rolls was tough because Bosley Jr., then circuit clerk, refused to give the board lists of criminals as required by state law -- the secretary of state said he was the only court clerk in the state who didn't provide lists to local election authorities. By the time the board finally sued him to force disclosure, he was a candidate for mayor. Bosley Jr. accused the board of intimidating voters. "If we've disagreed for three years, why now?" he told the Post-Dispatch. "The board is trying to scare Democrats, older and poor people from voting."
After reviewing city elections in the spring of 1992, former Secretary of State Roy Blunt, Matt Blunt's father, concluded that the board needed an overhaul. "In general, a failure to provide professional guidance at all levels has resulted in a serious deterioration of staff morale and office function," Roy Blunt said in his report. He recommended 63 changes in board policies and procedures, agreeing with board investigators who called for more vigilance in purging voter rolls and better recruitment and training of election judges.
Critical reports from Roy Blunt and the board's own investigators weren't enough to force reform. Just one year later, the entire board was forced to resign because commissioners had ties to the gambling industry, which was preparing a riverboat measure for the ballot. The new slate of commissioners was hardly an improvement. In 1997, Circuit Judge Philip Heagney warned that day-to-day operations at board offices were a mess.
The board had scheduled a 1997 recall election aimed at Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th) for January, despite a state law that says no elections can be held that month. The board assigned inexperienced employees with no training to process the paperwork, and Carter admitted she had destroyed computer records used to certify signatures.
"If the Board's processing of the October 1996 recall petition ... is representative of the current state of the Board's internal operations, the Court believes the Board has serious management problems which demand immediate attention," Heagney wrote in a decision allowing the election to proceed. "It is essential to the operation of an elected government and to the maintenance of a civil society in our community that the citizens of St. Louis have complete confidence in the Board of Election Commissioners and in the ways it carries out its responsibilities. Based on the evidence presented in this case, the Board's performance does not justify such confidence."
The judge's concerns prompted no outside review and no firings, which wasn't surprising, given the response by Gov. Mel Carnahan and Secretary of State Cook a few months earlier, when the Board of Aldermen, in a 17-2 vote, asked that the state investigate the election board and send monitors to the polls for the spring primary. No monitors were sent. No investigation was launched. And the 1997 primary proved a preview of coming disasters.
Voters, particularly on the North Side, waited more than an hour to cast ballots. Some gave up and went home without voting, including an untold number who, contrary to state law, were asked for photo identification by election judges who should have known better. A federal judge denied a request by Bosley Jr. to keep the polls open late. In some cases, police were called to polling places before tempers got out of hand.
Wardwell Buckner, a roving deputy hired by the board to visit polling places where problems occurred, recalls being called to one North Side precinct several times that day. "There was an enormous amount of screaming, but there was actually no problem," Buckner says. "Elderly election judges were moving the line slowly. They [voters] were under the impression that there was a deliberate attempt to slow down the voting in a black neighborhood in order to depress the vote total. In other words, they would keep the Bosley vote down and move much faster in South St. Louis. I remember one person saying this was just like Mississippi all over again, or something like that."
Once again, nothing got fixed.
Shortly before the election, former state Rep. Russell Goward (D-St. Louis) vowed to investigate the election board after the primary. He told the Post-Dispatch he was concerned about absentee ballots and what might have been on a computer taken home by former board executive director Janice Trigg without authorization. Trigg was fired for her indiscretion.
Today, Goward, no longer a legislator, can't remember the investigation. Nor can state Rep. Catherine Enz (R-South St. Louis County), who was supposed to investigate the matter with Goward on a three-legislator subcommittee of the House Governmental Operations Committee.
"I don't believe that even any committee members were involved in it," Enz recalls. "I remember it just to be some type of an internal investigation within the St. Louis election board."
Joseph Neill still doesn't get it. He says the system isn't broken.
"Ninety percent of the problems you read about pertaining to the Board of Election Commissioners are problems brought on from without, not from within," says the board's former Democratic director of elections, who resigned shortly before last year's primary. "There were some things we didn't do right. Our communications system was not equipped to handle the 2000 election. But if you look at the county and the city, there were long lines everywhere."
Greenbaum, appointed by Gov. Bob Holden to replace Neill, doesn't mince words.
"I'm here because of what happened in November 2000," says Greenbaum, a former senior staff attorney with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals who started work at the election board in October. "There were some things done that were just not right. There wasn't much anticipation going on. What happened was, there was a status quo-ism. People never really realized the problem until it was catastrophic. I think if you want to talk about lemonade from lemons, there's attention being given to things that probably went on for years and probably in greater numbers than anyone ever knew."
Greenbaum says the board isn't sinister, and she downplays allegations of fraud.
"The idea that this is a very corrupt, sleazy operation is an unfair and inaccurate perception," she says. Although she doesn't think the three people charged so far were independent actors and acknowledges that some dirty tricks are probably going on, she says it doesn't rise to the level of a massive conspiracy.
"Do I think there's a very sophisticated plot to steal an election?" she says. "My gut says no."
Since the presidential election, the board has distributed inactive-voter lists to precincts and improved telephone communication between headquarters and polling places. There haven't been any disasters, but then again, the new board hasn't yet run a big election. Greenbaum won't guarantee smooth sailing in the August primary. "There are still a lot of challenges," she says. "I can't tell you how it's going to work in a citywide election."
Regardless of their registration status, election judges remain a problem. There's always been a shortage of Republican judges. Others are simply too old -- some have had trouble figuring out how to use a cell phone. Greenbaum puts the matter delicately. "We have a demographic that's difficult," she says. "We have some people who, probably, their time has come and gone, and so we really need to move those people on. We've been really firm in saying it is not better to just have a warm body, because election judges are the face of the board."
The board may divide the workday so that elderly judges don't work 14-hour shifts. The board also wants to recruit new election judges and convince businesses to let employees work the polls on election day. Greenbaum agrees with critics who say election judges have been requiring photo identification from voters, a practice she hopes will end now that the board has rewritten training manuals to make it clear that such demands are illegal.
Greenbaum also wants to trim the inactive-voter list, which has ballooned by about 10,000 voters since the presidential election, but she doesn't have a firm plan on how to accomplish that. And she wants to divorce the election board's computers from systems in City Hall and make sure firewalls are in place that prevent unauthorized people from gaining access. "If I'm answering completely honestly, I think that computer security is and should be a continuing concern," she says.
Greenbaum's Republican counterpart, Gary Stoff, agrees with the changes. Part of the challenge is reducing politics in an office that runs on patronage and is subject to the whims of the governor, who appoints the board. "We come from a management background as opposed to a political background," says Stoff, who has spent 30 years as counsel for various corporations. "Our careers have not been involved in running for office or that sort of thing."
The board's efforts so far win praise even from enemies. "I really feel very good about this," says Wolff, the lawyer whose lawsuit alleging the board has disenfranchised voters is set for trial in June. "I feel we're very, very fortunate that we've got some people now who want to help solve this problem. I feel for the first time this problem's going to be worked on. It ain't going to be solved, but it's going to be worked on, and that's all I can ask for right now. I no longer want to fight against them. I want to fight with them to help them do what needs to be done."
Others see no hope.
"I think there's going to be some ruffles and flourishes, but I think it's likely to be what it's been historically," Harmon says, "and that is, every so often somebody will raise the flag and say, 'Enough of this.' There'll be some movement around. The sage political pundits will move back, wink and nod at one another and keep the process going."
Not while she's on the election board, Greenbaum vows. Any violation of election law will be taken seriously, she promises. And she wishes Joyce well in the ongoing investigation.
"I want them to enforce, because that makes our process that much more credible," Greenbaum says.
"If they indict people, that's fine. I'm interested in cleaning up St. Louis."