[Image by Robert Cohen via St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

For many people in the election world, the place to watch yesterday was the state of Wisconsin, which held its hotly-contested, high-turnout presidential primary in the wake of major changes to the state’s election system including introduction of voter ID requirements.

The place that no one was watching until yesterday was the one that had a very bad day: St. Louis County, MO. There, widespread ballot shortages turned the County’s municipal elections into a mess, including court action and calls for state and local investigations. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has more:

A voting debacle in St. Louis County left residents in more than 60 precincts unable to cast ballots Tuesday, leading the St. Louis County Council and Secretary of State Jason Kander to announce separate investigations.

Gov. Jay Nixon called the problems “inexcusable,” adding: “The St. Louis County Board of Elections, and particularly its two directors, must rectify these mistakes, explain how they occurred, and be held accountable for this unacceptable failure.”

Kander said his office’s Elections Integrity Unit would review the election in St. Louis County. He also called the election performance “unacceptable.”

County officials plan to hold a public hearing to grill county election board members on why municipal election voters were turned away in 24 of the county’s 432 polling places that had insufficient or invalid paper ballots.

“I’m outraged by this and by that standpoint, we have to do something,” said Mark Harder, the West County Republican council member who asked that County Election Directors Eric Fey and Gary Fuhr be called to account.

“We have major elections coming in August and November and the election board has to get its act together. This is unacceptable to us and it’s unacceptable to the voters of St. Louis County…”

The frustration that grew exponentially across the county throughout the day began at 6 a.m. when an absence of ballots caused election workers to turn residents away from polling places.

 Tom Jennings showed up outside a precinct at Our Lady of Lourdes parish elementary school shortly before the polls opened to canvas for University City Council candidate Terry Crow.

“They had ballots for the first five people that came in,” Jennings said. “That was it after that.”

As the list of polling irregularities continued to grow, so, too, did the number of officials condemning the county election board.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger warned election officials that “they’ll be hearing from our staff tomorrow. That board really needs to get its act together.”

Because the County’s electronic voting machines were used in the recent presidential primary, this election was to be conducted on paper ballots. For whatever reason, though, many precincts either didn’t get enough ballots – or got the wrong ones:

The issues that surfaced Tuesday were two-fold.

Fey attributed the situation to polling places that require ballots for multiple jurisdictions — such as a school board election and a municipal government race.

A single polling place, moreover, may serve voters electing officials representing different wards or governmental districts.

The upshot is that a polling place may, for example, require 15 ballots for one election and 200 for another.

And on Tuesday, Fey said, the number and type of ballots provided to some precincts were reversed.

“We just flipped those,” the elections director said.

Fey acknowledged that the problems were exacerbated by a decision to present voters with paper ballots — an option election officials exercised after concluding that recalibrating electronic voting machines so soon after the March 15 Missouri presidential primary would be too difficult.

The shortages led a court to order polling hours to be extended – but the order came so late that few voters took advantage, if polls were still open at all:

The council decision to hold a hearing on how and what happened Tuesday came moments before the Missouri Court of Appeals at St. Louis ruled that 63 precincts in 24 polling places must remain open two hours beyond the scheduled closing time of 7 p.m.

But by the time the order was communicated to elections officials, several polling places had already shuttered their doors.

Officials encouraged those who still wished to vote to cast their ballots at county election headquarters in Maplewood.

Brad Goss, 59, of Ladue, declined the offer.

Turned away by a precinct at Horton Watkins High School that didn’t have any ballots earlier in the day, Goss balked when election officials informed him Tuesday night that he’d have to cast his vote in Maplewood.

“I’m entitled to have my vote counted in this polling place,” he pointed out. “I shouldn’t have to drive somewhere else to vote, and who even knows if my vote would be counted?”

Goss prevailed when officials located a ballot allowing him to vote in Ladue.

Fey, the Democratic director of elections, said fewer than 10 people voted between 7 and 9 p.m. as a result of the court order. Their votes were not included in the unofficial totals, he said. He said the election board would consult its legal counsel on how to handle those votes.

He said that because the court order wasn’t received until 7:30, election board staffers were able to reach no more than five of the polling places affected by the court order.

Fey said he didn’t know how many of those polling places actually allowed people to vote after 7 p.m. But he said that some did — and that in at least two instances, election board staffers drove to the locations with ballots for people to cast. He also said a few people cast ballots at the election board office.

There are several factors at work here: first, the fact that the two elections were so close together undoubtedly resulted in divided attention, complicated by the fact that the two elections were being run with different technology. Second, the use of paper ballots left the County little room for error because they, arguably, require the greatest amount of pre-planning due to the need to ensure that there are enough ballots of the right kind in each polling place. Finally, there was error – someone(s) made significant mistakes in printing, allocation and/or delivery. It will be fascinating to see what turns up in the many different calls for an investigation.

[Side note: This is the second story in recent weeks (the first being Cincinnati after an Election Day highway shutdown) where a court order to extend voting came too late to keep most polls open. It’s not clear whether this is a matter of courts not moving quickly enough, delay on the part of litigants seeking the delay or both, but a court order to extend voting after the polls have closed is just about the worst possible outcome because it creates even more work and confusion at a time when neither is helpful.]

It will be interesting to see what turns up in the various investigations – and. more importantly, what effect they and yesterday’s very bad day have on the County’s preparations for this fall’s presidential general election.

Stay tuned …