Why you should care
Because this election board fiasco provided fodder for attacks on voter access.
When most of the nation thinks of Nov. 7, 2000, hanging chads in Florida come to mind. But Doug Dowd, a St. Louis lawyer and a member of a Democratic family dynasty in Missouri, remembers another electoral controversy with huge ramifications. For him, one can draw a direct line from the voting confusion and political subterfuge in Missouri that day to the discriminatory voter ID laws and voter purging concerns Democrats decry today in places like Georgia and Kansas. The worst part for Dowd: It was liberals in St. Louis who accidentally paved the way. “The Democrats just didn’t grasp what the implications were,” he says.
While Dowd found out about the mess at 2:33 p.m. on Election Day, the truth was that the coming chaos was months in the making. Earlier that election season, nearly 50,000 voters had been removed from the rolls of the St. Louis Board of Elections. The commissioners placed many voters on an “inactive” list, concerned about felons voting and voters without valid addresses using fraudulent ones. Some of the concerns were valid, says Kenneth Warren, a voting fraud and rights expert at St. Louis University. “We had pictures of gas stations, empty lots, where people had registered as voters,” Warren says.
But while postcards were sent out to allow voters to correct any mistaken purges, most of them never made it to their intended recipients. That left tens of thousands of mostly Black city residents unregistered — and uninformed about that fact until Election Day, when it was too late. Voters were turned back at their polling places and were sent to the Board of Election’s office on 300 North Tucker Boulevard, which was overwhelmed by the influx. Dowd, a lawyer for his family’s firm Dowd & Dowd, got calls from Al Gore’s presidential campaign and a desperate state Democratic Party: Would he be willing to lead the legal fight to keep the polls open and accommodate the voters who had been delayed?
The history of voter suppression, particularly around low-income and minority voters, is difficult to ignore in states like Missouri.
Dowd showed up at the court ready to file suit. Republicans and Democrats were there in full force, with the high stakes of presidential and statewide elections at their back. Dowd was handed a drafted petition and a sympathetic judge, Evelyn Baker, the first Black female circuit court judge in Missouri. The only problem? The original plaintiff the Democrats had listed, Robert D. Odom, wasn’t actually a denied voter. Nor was he there; the Democrats had sent his son to court instead, but the son hadn’t been turned away at the polls either. “Well, I can’t put you on,” Dowd remembers saying. “I have to have somebody who was denied the right to vote.”
The Democrats scrambled, with volunteers running to North Tucker to grab potential voters who could serve as plaintiffs. The judge, Baker, accepted an oral motion to exchange Odom with Mahina Nightsage, a woman who testified that she had been improperly purged and denied her right to vote. The case proceeded as planned, and Dowd was able to secure a promise that the polls would be kept open an additional three hours after their original closing time of 7 p.m. “Nobody cared, it was a technical matter,” he says. Republicans were furious and, from their perspective, for good reason: It seemed as if Democrats were bending the rules to gin up turnout in the biggest Democratic stronghold in the state. So the GOP filed a countersuit, and a state appellate court forced the polls to close before 8 p.m.
There was bipartisan frustration at the Board of Election’s ineptitude. “If stupidity were a crime, then the board’s actions would be a class A felony,” Baker, the judge, said to a television crew soon after the election. Kevin Coan, a Republican member of the board, said such criticism was partisan griping and that everyone who was legitimately allowed to vote had been able to do so. And on election night, after Missouri Democrats won both the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat, the senior Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond bloodied and broke his fist while pounding on a lectern and accusing Democrats of voter fraud for their actions in St. Louis. “It’s an outrage!” the Republican reportedly shouted. “Can you believe that anybody would say that a Democratic election board, appointed by a Democratic governor in a Democratic city, dominated by Democrats, would try to keep Democrats from voting?”
In the aftermath, Democrats accidentally played right into that Republican fury. While Bond was asking for a federal investigation into St. Louis voter fraud, a local TV reporter interviewed Dowd two days after the election. “He asked: ‘The main plaintiff was Robert D. Odom?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’” Dowd remembers. The reporter responded, on-air: “Doug, Robert D. Odom is dead.” Although Dowd tried to explain the plaintiff exchange, the damage was done. “It confirmed the ‘fraud’ thing,” he says, and Republicans capitalized. “They really got their horse with that,” Dowd says.
Bond was buoyed by the smoking gun that would provide more than a decade’s worth of fodder for conservatives who say Democrats use dead voters to win elections. The Republican senator became a key leader in passing the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, leading efforts, along with Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, to include voter ID provisions — the final bill would include them, but only for first-time voters registering by mail. The action was seen as “a retreat by congressional Democrats on the ID issue,” one that split the liberal advocacy community, according to a report by elections researcher Lorraine C. Minnite. “In hindsight, the HAVA ID requirement, limited as it may be, nevertheless paved the way for a partisan movement … to impose more and more restrictive identification requirements on voting,” the 2003 analysis reads.
Since then, states from Rhode Island to Arizona have passed laws requiring voters to show identification at the voting booth. One such law in Texas was tossed out in 2017 after being ruled unconstitutional, while a North Carolina law was reversed in 2016 after a court ruled it specifically targeted Black voters. The history of voter suppression, particularly around low-income and minority voters, is difficult to ignore in states like Missouri. “Voter ID is another poll tax,” St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last summer, referring to one of many types of Jim Crow laws that sought to suppress the African-American vote.
Similar concerns of voter fraud investigations being used for voter suppression are emerging again. In Kansas, an interstate “cross-check system” that was supposed to catch election fraud by stopping people from voting in multiple states was shown to “eliminate about 200 registrations used to cast legitimate votes for every one registration used to cast a double vote,” according to an analysis by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and Microsoft. And in the Georgia governor race, Republican candidate Brian Kemp has been accused of using his secretary of state office to improperly purge as many as 340,000 voters — cueing a reminder of an Election Day purge in St. Louis that set many of these problems in motion.