Senate panel focuses on city election woes
This story was published in A-section on Friday, May 4, 2001. By Deirdre Shesgreen
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - St. Louis' recent election saga was Exhibit A at a Senate hearing on electoral reform Thursday, as two of Missouri's top politicians squared off over what is wrong with the city's voting system.

Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., and Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., D-St. Louis, offered starkly different assessments of -- and solutions to -- the problems that plagued St. Louis in November's presidential election and the more recent mayoral primary.

The city's troubled election system also provided a window into a larger national debate over how to strike a balance between providing voters with unfettered access to the polls while preventing fraud and irregularities in elections.

Although the spotlight Thursday was on St. Louis, the backdrop was last year's presidential election and the 36-day recount drama that unfolded in Florida. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the party's vice presidential nominee in that election, convened the hearing, held by the Government Affairs Committee.

"This is not about last year's election outcome," Lieberman said as the hearing began. "It's about a much larger problem that we came across in Election 2000. . . . Difficult as it is to believe, Americans still cannot take for granted that their votes will be counted, or even that they will be permitted to cast a ballot in the first place."

Bond had a different take on the problems that cropped up in the last election, particularly in Missouri. He accused Democrats of conspiring to steal November's election in Missouri when they went to court to keep the polls open.

"There was a major effort to change the will of the people," Bond told the panel.

Bond then turned to the more recent controversy in St. Louis, in which more than 3,000 suspect voter registration cards were dropped off at the city's Election Board a month before the March 6 mayoral primary. Many of those cards sought to register people already on the rolls and dead people. One named a pet.

"What we have seen in St. Louis these past months has been nothing short of astonishing," he said. "We've had dead people, and yes, even a dog. We've had fake names, addresses which are vacant lots," Bond said.

As Bond testified, Clay, who was a plaintiff in the suit to extend voting hours in November, sat in the audience smiling and shaking his head. Then Clay took his turn at the witness table, arguing that the problem in St. Louis was not fraud but disenfranchisement, particularly of African-American voters.

"Gross errors" in the city's voter rolls and "obsolete and inadequate equipment" prevented thousands of St. Louisans from voting, Clay said. "These factors led to an election conducted amid widespread voter chaos at polling places throughout the city."

The long lines prompted Clay and other Democrats to file suit on Election Day, when they won a court order that kept the polls open for 45 minutes after the scheduled closing.

That court petition, in Bond's view, was part of an effort by Democrats to commit vote fraud. Although Bond didn't mention it in his testimony, he levied a similar accusation Thursday at the Gore/Lieberman campaign.

He gave the press a copy of a petition that the campaign filed in Kansas City on Election Day. The petition relies on the same law and includes language similar to the petition filed in St. Louis.

"These documents strongly suggest a coordinated effort at the national level to manipulate presidential election results in Kansas City and St. Louis," Bond said in a statement. "Gore/Lieberman 2000 is the only plaintiff on both lawsuits, and that tells us where we should look to find out who was behind it."

Democratic lawyers involved in the two petitions said they shared information, but they dismissed as ridiculous the notion that there was a concerted plan to manipulate the election results.

"Coordination to prepare lawyers for Election Day problems is something any responsible campaign would do," said Edward Rucker, a Kansas City lawyer who filed the petition for Gore/Lieberman. "Coordination to say 'Oh golly, we want to keep the polls open,' I never saw anything like that."

Rucker's petition - which was rejected by a Kansas City court - argued that the court should keep the polls open in Kansas City because inadequate polling facilities were keeping voters from casting their ballots.

Much of the debate Thursday turned on the so-called motor voter law passed in 1993, which made it easier for people to register to vote by allowing them to sign up at motor vehicle offices and other governmental agencies.

Some witnesses and lawmakers, including Bond, said elements of the law have fostered abuse, making it easier for people to register fictitious names and harder for election officials to purge voter rolls.

Bond has sponsored a bill that would tighten the motor voter law by requiring voters who register by mail to show a photo ID the first time they vote, rather than submitting an absentee ballot.

Clay said that could hamper voting in poor communities, where residents often don't have drivers licenses.

"It would diminish the effectiveness of motor voter and the Voting Rights Act," Clay said. "To now start chipping away at those rights is disappointing, and it's something I will fight."

Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., was a member of the committee but did not question Bond or Clay.

Reporter Deirdre Shesgreen:

E-mail: dshesgreen@post-dispatch.com

Phone: 202-298-6880