Election workers examine absentee ballots on election night, Nov, 4, to determine whether they qualify to be counted.
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (Nov. 8, 2008) — Pulaski County elections have been late before — long-termers in county politics remember times when the Dixon precinct didn’t report its results until after midnight — but Tuesday’s late election night watch was the longest anyone can remember in decades.
Final results didn’t come in until about midnight, and one candidate, John Mackey, waited to claim victory in his race for surveyor until County Clerk Diana Linnenbringer finished adding up election results that included special military ballots for federal races, even though they wouldn’t affect his county race.
Tuesday’s late-night balloting happened for two unusual reasons that election workers say never happened before: more than 3,600 individual absentee ballots had to be examined by hand to verify they were valid and the St. Robert precinct was still having people vote until 10:10 a.m. Tuesday night, three hours after the polls would ordinarily close.
The absentee ballots affected the results of at least two elections. County Sheriff J.B. King, a Republican, was losing to his Democratic challenger J.T. Roberts, a former sheriff, by a margin of about 70 votes until the thousands of absentee ballots were counted. Those ballots placed him ahead by a margin of 6440 to 6400. On the other hand, the absentee ballots gave John Mackey, a Waynesville Democrat who served as surveyor for six terms before being defeated four years ago by Republican Don Mayhew of Crocker, an edge over Mayhew who was winning until the absentee ballots were tallied.
County Clerk Diana Linnenbringer made special arrangements in expectation of long lines at the St. Robert and Waynesville precincts, but the severity of the St. Robert situation wasn’t anticipated.
Federal law allows soldiers who aren’t registered to show up at their polling place and vote a special military ballot that contains only state and federal races. This year that meant the presidential race and the U.S. Congress race between Rep. Ike Skelton and challenger Jeff Parnell, since Missouri’s seats in the U.S. Senate aren’t up for election until 2010 and 2012.
“We had 200 soldiers show up at five minutes to 7 p.m., and they had to vote at the video screens so they could only vote two at a time, but they all did get to vote,” said Jim Phillips, the chief election judge for the St. Robert precinct, which includes Fort Leonard Wood.
Federal law requires each precinct to have a special video screen voting machine to assist disabled voters who may not be able to read a ballot, mark a ballot, or otherwise can’t handle the paper ballots ordinarily used for voting. Those machines, called DREs, can also process the federal military ballots and proved to be a last-minute time saver for St. Robert.
Election judge Don Murray said he’s glad Linnenbringer decided to place two DRE machines rather than one in St. Robert, just in case.
“That second DRE saved us about an hour,” Murray said.
Linnenbringer said 314 people in St. Robert cast electronic DRE votes, of which all but two were military ballots. Two civilians chose to use the electronic touch screens and voted a full Pulaski County ballot.
The last military voter left the polling place at 10:10 p.m. and the ballots arrived at the courthouse about 10:30 p.m., leading to cheers by some of the candidates and their supporters who were waiting in the courthouse lobby.
However, the absentee ballots still needed to be counted even after St. Robert’s numbers were reported. Those are usually the first ballots to be reported, but Linnenbringer said she didn’t have any choice except to hold off on reporting the absentee votes. The election judges spent many hours from the close of voting until nearly midnight inspecting each absentee ballot envelope to make sure the person who submitted it was in fact a registered voter and verifying that those ballots which required notarization were notarized. Ballots then had to be manually unfolded and run through a ballot reader, which takes less than a minute per ballot, but with thousands of ballots, the process still took hours.
Phillips said he was pleased by the work Linnenbringer did but said — laughing — that she may have much more of a problem recruiting volunteers next year.
“Diana and her staff need a special commendation because they worked their butts off,” Phillips said. “But everybody who worked St. Robert isn’t going to work this again.”