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State audit faults St. Louis Election Board in several areas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 7, 2011 -  The St. Louis Election Board, under fire for more than a decade and the subject of a federal lawsuit, fared only slightly better in the latest state audit -- which questioned some of the agency's practices when it comes to finances, following the state's open-meetings laws, tracking voters and monitoring campaign finance reports.

The audit was, however, a dramatic improvement from the 2004 audit -- which found costly missteps with cell phones, and far more problematic practices.

Overall, this latest audit rated the board's operations as "fair."

The audit, released today by state Auditor Tom Schweich, faulted the board's preference for closed meetings -- which by law must be only for certain types of personnel or procurement actions.

"Roll call votes to go into closed session were not taken and/or recorded in the minutes, the specific reasons for closing meetings were not included in the minutes, and the closed minute meetings indicate unallowable topics were discussed in closed session," the audit said, adding that the board "had no documentation that it solicited bids for five procurements."

The audit also zeroed in on campaign-finance matters, saying the board's staff "does not adequately track all required candidate reports, so there is no assurance complete and accurate candidate reports are filed when due and late fees assessed for violations."

A sampling of five campaign committees who have filed reports within the past year found that only one had filed all the required reports -- but the audit implied that no action had been taken regarding the other four, who had missed at least one filing deadline.

The audit also asserted that the board staff "does not routinely review and update the database of registered voters, and more than 2,400 voters were registered in the city and elsewhere in the state."

However, the audit noted that the board "has made significant improvements in this area since our 2004 audit," when far more dual registrations were found.

In the St. Louis region, various voter-fraud probes have unearthed only one bonafide case of a person voting twice -- a man was convicted several years ago of voting both in St. Louis and across the river in Illinois.

In virtually cases of dual registrations, the person had moved and re-registered in their new location, but had not notified the Election Board in their old location. Probes in various alleged cases of persons voting twice in St. Louis and St. Louis County have determined that did not occur, and that sign-in errors (persons signing in on the wrong line) were to blame.

The current St. Louis Election Board -- appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon -- has been in place less than a year. Election boards in Missouri's major urban areas are appointed by whoever is governor, with the bipartisan board consisting of a chairman of the same party as the governor.

UPDATE: Board chairman Joan M. Burger, a retired judge, joined Republican assistant election director Gary Stoff and Democratic director Mary Wheeler Jones in a conference call aimed at clarifying some of the findings and the board's corrective actions.

Burger and Stoff maintained that the closed-meeting problems dealt with the lack of recorded votes, and not the topics. Stoff said the board believes it made the necessary changes when the auditing staff pointed out the problems. "We're appreciative of what the auditor's staff did," Stoff said. "They properly brought to our attention areas where we need to pay more attention."

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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