A circuit judge in Missouri on Friday overturned a primary election result, citing irregularities with absentee ballots. The decision exposed haphazard election practices in St. Louis.
The August 2 Democratic primary for the 78th district of the Missouri House of Representatives resulted in a 90-vote victory for incumbent Penny Hubbard. She defeated challenger Bruce Franks Jr., an activist in Ferguson, Missouri.
On Election Day in the St. Louis area district, Franks appeared to win the election with 52% of the vote. However, Hubbard won 78% of the 530 absentee ballots cast. Consequently, on August 17, Franks filed a lawsuit on the grounds that irregularities in absentee ballots affected the outcome. He claimed absentee votes were "obtained illegally, were tampered with, or both."
Judge Rex Burlison's 22-page ruling did not assign blame to the Hubbard campaign. Rather, the City of St. Louis Board of Elections was responsible for spotting the oddities.
"Any error or irregularity that the Court finds therein, is solely the responsibility of the City of St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners," he wrote.
142 ballots not in sealed envelopes, which arrived at the Board of Elections, were key to the judge's decision. However, absentee ballots must arrive in sealed envelopes according to state election law. Judge Burlison noted:
"The number of votes called into question exceed the margin of the apparent victory and is of sufficient magnitude to cast doubt on the validity of the initial election."
Upon hearing the judge's decision, Franks said, "I'm so happy for the people. . . . This is huge."
An investigation later conducted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed numerous inconsistencies - all of them pertaining to absentee ballots. At least two registered voters reported Hubbard campaign workers asked for their signatures, but later completed the rest of the ballot for them. When shown their absentee ballots, these voters later said the ballots bore their own signature, but also others' handwriting. Additionally, many voters had duplicate absentee ballots cast in their names.
Hubbard is part of a St. Louis political family. Her daughter, Tammika, is a St. Louis alderman. Her husband, Rodney, is a former state representative who also won a Democratic primary for alderman on August 2. Like his wife, Rodney Hubbard finished second on Election Day, but prevailed when absentee ballots overwhelmingly favored him.
Franks' lawyer, David Roland, argued that absentee ballots typically consist of 2-10% of votes cast in a precinct. However, he claimed absentee ballots increase to 20% when one of the Hubbards runs for office, including 65% once. "Almost every single election you got these extraordinary amounts of ballots going in their favor," he said.
The new election is scheduled for Friday, September 16.