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In St. Louis, Dead Are Causing Lively Debate With Their Votes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The dearly departed seem to have quite a constituency around here.

At least three dead aldermen registered to vote in Tuesday’s mayoral primary. So did one alderman’s deceased mother.

And a dead man was listed as the chief plaintiff in a lawsuit filed on election day in November. He was having trouble voting, the suit said, due to long lines at his polling station. So he petitioned a judge--successfully--to keep city ballot boxes open late.

Over at the dingy county election board headquarters, harried staffers now are reviewing thousands of registration cards--and finding ever more curiosities: addresses that turn out to be vacant lots, civic leaders double-registered at bogus addresses, convicted felons illegally seeking ballots and, always, more deceased voters.

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“We find more every day,” said election director Kevin Coan.

Not surprisingly, accusations of fraud are flying. And so are calls for top-to-bottom reform.

“Our election system in St. Louis is like Ft. Knox without locks on it,” said Alderman James Shrewsbury, whose mother was posthumously registered. “There needs to be a housecleaning.”

The most urgent mop-up job concerns 3,800 registration cards dropped off just before the deadline to vote in the primary. Election workers became suspicious when they found the name of Albert “Red” Villa, an alderman who died in 1990, on one card. At least a third of the registrations turned out to be fraudulent, Coan said.

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The question, of course, is who submitted them--and why.

The skulduggery scenario runs like this: One of the mayoral campaigns cooked up the phony registrations to steal the election. (Campaign workers could do this by requesting absentee ballots for the fake voters and marking them for their man.) An even more sinister suggestion: The cards could be a dirty trick, planted by one candidate to make it look as though a rival were gearing up to rig the vote.

Some of the candidates have dropped hints that such a conspiracy would not be beyond their foes. But political observers find it hard to believe any contender would stoop to such clumsy fraud. “It’s so blatant,” said James Buford, president of the Urban League of Metro St. Louis. “I don’t see any of them taking that kind of risk or being that stupid.”

Which leads to the third possibility: laziness. Democrats have been conducting a registration drive unaffiliated with any candidate. Some workers may have found it easier to fabricate cards using old phone books than to walk door-to-door seeking real voters.

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A grand jury is investigating the fake-card fiasco--and considering criminal charges. Meanwhile, election officials have been working seven days a week to figure out who is eligible to vote Tuesday.

The chaos only amplifies an already tense atmosphere that has lingered since November’s presidential election.

Democrats maintain that the election board disenfranchised countless voters, mainly African Americans, by unfairly striking them from the active-voter list. (The board says it only removed people who had failed to notify them of a new address.) They further contend that polling places in many black neighborhoods were so crowded that many voters left rather than wait hours.

To Republicans, the trouble was not that too few people could vote, but that too many could.

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Judges permitted at least 135 unregistered voters to cast ballots based on written affidavits declaring such reasons as: “I want a Dem. president,” or “Found out about Gore from my mother.”

And as many as 100 voters cast ballots after the polls were supposed to close.

The lawsuit that won extended voting hours was filed on behalf of a Robert D. Odom. It indicated that he “has not been able to vote and fears he will not be able to vote” because of crowding at his polling place. It later emerged that Odom had died a year earlier. The lawyer who filed the suit explained the mix-up by saying he had intended the plaintiff to be Robert M. “Mark” Odom, an aide to a Democratic candidate for Congress. Yet that Odom had voted, without a wait, by the time the suit was filed.

Citing such screw-ups, Republicans recently filed a 250-page report with the U.S. attorney, accusing Democrats of “an organized effort to commit vote fraud.”

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Local prosecutors plan to send 22 observers to the polls Tuesday. The secretary of state and his staff will be here too. With their help, Buford said, “I think we can have a clean election.”


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