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Right before primary, Nixon makes changes at St. Louis Election Board

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 30, 2010 - Just days before Missouri's primary election, Gov. Jay Nixon has ordered changes at the St. Louis Election Board.

In a brief statement, included in a list of new appointments, the governor's office said that Democrat Eileen McCann is the new chairperson of the board, with Republican Jack Lary serving as secretary.

McCann, who has been on the board since 2006, had been the board's secretary.

McCann replaces Republican Carol A. Wilson, who has been chairman for three years. She served on the board as secretary for most of 2002, after being appointed by then-Gov. Bob Holden. Wilson then left (to make an unsuccessful bid for alderman) and was reappointed in 2007 by then-Gov. Matt Blunt.

Also serving on the board is Democrat Clarence Dula.

Wilson said in an interview that she had expected changes, but "I'm surprised that this change was made so close to the primary."

She added, "I have not been directly advised of my status on the board."

McCann could not be reached Friday night. She is the only board member who does not have a detailed biography on the board's website.

A spokesman for Nixon said the shift in officers takes effect immediately, but he provided no details regarding why the change was made right before the primary. Spokesman Scott Holste added that Wilson remains on the board.

Wilson reported later that she also had received a call telling her that she was remaining on the board.

Missouri governors oversee and appoint the election boards in Missouri's largest metropolitan areas. By law, the chairman is of the same party as the governor, with the secretary of the opposing party.

But since taking office in January 2009, Nixon has left the city of St. Louis' GOP-run board intact -- presumably because St. Louis political leaders in both parties had been pleased with the Election Board's operations over the past few years.

Once known for being the last jurisdiction in the state to process its election results, the city of St. Louis' Election Board has in recent years often been among the first in the region to complete its work. Voting procedures at the polls also have improved, with closer monitoring of the polling sites.

Scott Leiendecker has been in charge of daily operations as the Republican elections director. Mary Wheeler Jones is the Democratic elections director and has been the No. 2 person in charge. Presumably, their roles will switch with the governor's changes. The directors serve at the pleasure of the four-person board, although governors often wield behind-the-scenes clout over staffing.

The St. Louis board's operations were revamped after an election-night meltdown in November 2000 prompted a federal lawsuit and a Justice Department probe. Hundreds of would-be voters had packed the board headquarters for much of the day during, because of voter-roll problems that resulted in people being tossed off the rolls without their knowledge and the lack of records at the polling sites.

Republicans also went to court that presidential-election night after Democrats earlier had obtained a court order to keep the city's polls open an additional three hours because of the polling-place problems. The November 2000 polls ended up closing at 7:45 p.m., 45 minutes after the usual closing time.

The Justice Department later determined that legitimate registered voters were indeed improperly barred from voting that night, while then-Secretary of State Matt Blunt raised questions about more than 1,000 people -- mostly in St. Louis County -- who had been allowed to vote via court orders.

In the end, the city's elections operations were dramatically overhauled, with some changes specified by the Justice Department in the consent degree ending the court fight. Mayor Francis Slay's office also became heavily involved in overseeing the board's changes, after Slay was elected in 2001 amid accusations of continued board problems.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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