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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Charles County Threw Out More Ballots In November Than Any Other Missouri County

absentee ballot counting process
David Kovaluk
/
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Charles County rejected more than 1,000 ballots in the 2020 general election — more than any other county in the state.

St. Charles County had among the highest rates of ballots thrown out in November’s general election in Missouri.

County election officials rejected 1,031 absentee and mail-in ballots, more than any other county in the state, data from the Missouri Secretary of State’s office shows. That’s 1.5% of all the early votes cast in St. Charles County and more than twice the statewide average.

Kurt Bahr, the county's director of elections, said he was surprised that the county ranked so high for ballot rejections. The responsibility to correctly cast a ballot lies with the voter, he said, not the election authority.

Most of the uncounted ballots were disqualified for missing a notary’s signature when one was required.

Mail-in ballots, a new voting option state legislators added for November, were the most likely to have problems. One out of every 25 of them cast in St. Charles County was tossed out. Mail-in ballots accounted for about a fifth of all uncounted ballots in the county.

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In neighboring St. Louis County, which received three times as many mail-in ballots, officials threw out just one in every 200 mail-in ballots received.

Twelve counties rejected absentee and mail-in ballots at higher rates than St. Charles County. Among them were Greene County, which includes Springfield, and Phelps County, which includes Rolla.

With record numbers of Missourians casting votes ahead of Election Day, voters worried that the number of ballots thrown out would soar, but data from the Secretary of State’s office show votes went uncounted at far lower rates than in recent elections.

Nearly three times as many people cast absentee ballots in the 2020 general election than in 2016, yet there were 304 fewer total absentee ballots rejected last November.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said he is unsurprised that the statewide rejection rate was so low because most early votes were cast in person, where the rejection rate is almost always zero.

“We saw a phenomenal number of [Missourians], get to the polls and do in-person absentee, which made it so much easier to run our elections,” he said.

Second chances

St. Charles County is the third most populous county in the state with about 400,000 residents, behind St. Louis County, population 1 million, and the roughly 700,000 residents in Jackson County.

St. Charles County had one of the highest rates of voter turnout in the state at 76% of its registered voters. About a fourth of them, more than 68,000 residents, cast an early ballot.

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St. Louis County received about 3½ times as many early ballots as St. Charles County, yet rejected 400 fewer.

Why? One reason is how their election authorities handled absentee and mail-in ballots with missing signatures or other required information.

St. Louis County Democratic Elections Director Eric Fey said giving voters the chance to fix their ballot is a “built-in” practice at his office. “I think just out of fairness, it's ideal if at all possible to tell somebody they made a mistake,” Fey said.

St. Louis County election workers contacted about 1,600 voters who submitted ballot envelopes with missing information. Bahr said the St. Charles Board of Elections office was too busy to contact voters who turned in ballots with mistakes.

“The reality is, logistically, it's a difficult thing for us to do,” Bahr said. “And in this election with the overwhelming number of absentee voters in person, as well as by mail, we simply didn't have the extra manpower to be able to do that.”

Bahr said he didn’t hire and train enough staff in time to respond to voter concerns while also processing a record-high volume of in-person absentee voters. He estimated the office hired 30 temporary staffers for November’s election and said he plans to have more workers for future elections. St. Louis County hired about 120 more temporary election workers than St. Charles County for November.

Some counties have time and resources to call voters back, but Fey called the practice “scattershot” across the state.

“There's no standard practice at all,” Fey said. “It's something that there's no funding for really, and election authorities are already stretched to the absolute limit leading up to an election.”

Missouri election officials are not required by law to contact a voter if their ballot is missing information or inform a voter if their vote was rejected.

St. Charles County resident Stephen Reece, 71, said he called the election board multiple times to confirm that his absentee ballot, which he mailed in, was there. He never got an answer.

“I’m gonna go ahead and assume that it was,” he said.

Correction: St. Charles County is the third most populous county in Missouri. A previous version of this story misstated its rank among Missouri counties.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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