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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louis-Area Election Officials ‘Confident’ Primary Results Will Come On Time

St. Louis County hired 30 bipartisan teams to tally a record amount of absentee and mail-in ballots at the St. Louis County Board of Elections warehouse on July 30. 7/30/20
Kayla Drake
/
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County hired 30 bipartisan teams to tally a record number of absentee and mail-in ballots at the St. Louis County Board of Elections warehouse on July 30.

Despite a record number of absentee and mail-in ballots and a cumbersome vote-by-mail structure, most area election officials say they’re confident results for Missouri’s Aug. 4 primary will come on time, without delays.

More than 130,000 Missouri voters in the St. Louis region applied to vote by mail for the August primary. Election authorities say the coronavirus pandemic is behind the historic surge of voters looking to avoid the polls. To count those ballots promptly, election officials in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis, Jefferson, Franklin and St. Charles counties hired more than 100 temporary workers combined.

St. Louis County ballot counters started checking ballots for errors at 8 a.m. Thursday. Most are seniors and former poll workers. All wore face masks and latex gloves. Missouri counties have until 5 p.m. Monday to check all mailed ballots.

Money from the federal coronavirus relief package passed in March helped several counties hire the additional workers.

With roughly 97,000 absentee and mail-in ballots, St. Louis County has more residents voting by mail than any county in the state. About 4,000 of those are mail-in ballots, said Eric Fey, St. Louis County’s Democratic director of elections.

“I am very confident that we're going to be able to handle the amount of ballots, mail-in and absentee ballots that we get in,” Fey said.

Fey estimates absentee ballots will make up nearly half of the total tally of votes in the county.

The influx of voting by mail comes as St. Louis County lost around half of its polling stations for the August election because businesses, churches and nursing homes declined, citing risk of spreading the coronavirus. That leaves 200 polls for Election Day. On Tuesday, the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners voted to allow registered county voters to vote at any polling station.

Caroline Upthegrove alphabetizes verified absentee and mail-in ballots at the St. Louis County Board of Elections warehouse on July 30. 7/30/20
Kayla Drake
Caroline Upthegrove alphabetizes verified absentee and mail-in ballots at the St. Louis County Board of Elections warehouse on July 30.

If more people continue to demand being allowed to vote by mail, Fey said Missouri needs to streamline its voting laws.

Missouri law requires every mailed ballot, whether absentee or mail-in, to be verified by hand. Election officials then must wait until Election Day to tally the ballots. The current voting structure not is designed for large amounts of mailed ballots, Fey said. In a typical election, only 5%-10% of voters cast votes by mail in Missouri, he said.

“It's much more labor intensive than you would see in a state that votes much more by mail,” Fey said.

For now, the quick fix for the August and November elections is for officials to just pay more overtime and hire more ballot counters. Missouri law requires an even number of Democratic and Republican ballot counters to be assigned to each county’s election authorities.

Similar to voters, election officials are treating the August primary like a trial for the November general election.

“This one’s going to be a good test for us,” said Tim Baker, Franklin County clerk.

Carrol Johnson, a 75-year-old ballot counter for St. Louis County, said she would like to see mail-in voting implemented more in future elections, beyond November.

“It’ll give those people an opportunity to vote that's afraid to come out,” she said.

Colette Boyd finishes verifying a stack of absentee and mail-in ballots at the St. Louis County Board of Elections warehouse on July 30. 7/30/20
Kayla Drake
Colette Boyd finishes verifying a stack of absentee and mail-in ballots at the St. Louis County Board of Elections warehouse on July 30.

Voters who need to correct mailed ballots

Elections authorities and volunteers are also contacting voters whose absentee and mail-in ballots are incorrectly filled out.

Hundreds of St. Louis and St. Louis County voters will have to revise their vote-by-mail ballots in time for Tuesday.

“We have taken it upon ourselves here in St. Louis County to be proactive and inform those voters that there's a deficiency and give them a chance, if at all possible, to correct it in order for it to count by Election Day,” Fey said.

Mailed ballots began to come into the county elections office in mid-July. Fey said some voters did not sign their envelopes, failed to include an address or did not obtain a notary's signature.

Missouri does not require election officials to contact voters with deficient ballots. Fey said in past elections, county officials rejected about 5% of ballots because they arrived late.

St. Louis and St. Louis County voters who incorrectly filled out their ballots can correct the errors at their Board of Elections office. County voters can also visit a satellite absentee voting location until Election Day or vote at the polls on Tuesday.

Voters will weigh in on whether to expand Medicare in Missouri and determine the party nominees for the St. Louis County executive race, among other statewide and local contests.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

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