Written by Mike Martin
Concerns over election integrity prompt unusual "ballot watching" move
COLUMBIA, 3/17/12 (Beat Byte) -- Questions about possible vote counting irregularities prompted a Columbia City Councilwoman and the League of Women Voters (LWV) to send ballot watchers to the office of Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren on election eve in April 2011, the Columbia Heart Beat recently confirmed.
"Helen Anthony contacted me and asked if she could have a representative at the office on election night, and I agreed," Noren told the Heart Beat. "Glen Ehrhardt and the LWV did not contact me and did not have a representative there, although Mrs. Anthony's representative was a long-time League member."
Mrs. Anthony and Mr. Ehrhardt squared off in a contentious race for the 5th Ward City Council seat. Mrs. Anthony was a favorite of local progressive voters, while Mr. Ehrhardt received the Columbia Chamber of Commerce endorsement. The campaign included several fiery exchanges, most notably a dispute over local firefighter support for Ehrhardt. Firefighters are city employees, and Mrs. Anthony protested their involvement in the campaign.
On the campaign trail, rumors reportedly surfaced that vote count monitoring -- not normally done during non-partisan elections such as City Council and School Board -- would be wise for the so-called "progressive candidates."
A man identified only as a "former employee of Wendy Noren" explained that in non-partisan elections, which also include policy initiatives such as tax increases, Ms. Noren alone performs the final vote tallies in a room separate from her staff. "There's no supervision," he reportedly told 5th Ward neighborhood canvassers. "No one else is in the room with her."
Similar rumors have circulated around the Statehouse for years, the Heart Beat learned, from quips such as "county clerks are good for a few" -- extra votes -- to detailed explanations of how vote counters can throw elections without detection and without prompting a recount.
No evidence has surfaced to support the charges, and Ms. Noren wanted additional information about people making such claims. Have they actually "served in the counting room, either as one of the official judges of the election, a watcher appointed by the party or an observer, or other personnel identified as being in the counting room on any election night?" she asked. Were they in the counting room for the entire process? Has an official election judge or vote-count watcher verified their presence?
Ms. Noren also provided the Heart Beat an insider's look at the vote counting process, a critical though little-understood part of every election.
A few weeks before the April 5 vote, Anthony supporter Nancy Harter contacted Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's office, "to inquire as to how vote counting could be monitored," Mrs. Anthony told the Heart Beat. "She was told that each candidate could have a representative present during the counting. Nancy called Glen [Ehrhardt] and told him." Mrs. Harter has confirmed this account.
Mrs. Anthony disagrees with Clerk Noren, however, about who observed the vote counting. She and Mr. Ehrhardt "both had representatives present and my representative was a member of the LWV," Mrs. Anthony said. Mr. Ehrhardt did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms. Noren says she had no problem accomodating the monitors, though for non-partisan races, vote count watching is neither routine nor required. "I have always allowed candidates in non-partisan elections who request it to designate someone to be in the office on election night to observe the process," she said. "That has happened a few times over the years."
Vote counting is so critical, Mrs. Harter believes, that third-party monitoring should be routine in all elections.
Two types of vote count monitors oversee all partisan races: "election judges" and "watchers," Ms. Noren explained.
"State law mandates that two representatives, one from each major political party, serve as the official election judges in the counting room," she told the Heart Beat. The law also grants "additional access to the counting locations to persons officially known as 'watchers' who must be appointed by the chair of each political party the Wednesday before the election."
Illustrating the importance of ballot watching, Ms. Noren said that Democrat and Republican party chairs designate watchers and appoint election judges every year. Even international observers recognized by the U.S. State Department have observed. "A few times (less than 5) a member of the public has requested to watch," she said.
Though Mrs. Harter and others say they have encouraged the League of Women Voters to develop a permanent vote count monitoring program for all local elections, LWV representative Carol Schreiber said she is "not sure" League president Linda Kaiser "plans to do any additional observation."
Ms. Kaiser did not respond to Heart Beat requests for comment.
"Candidates who want a representative should contact me by the Thursday before the election," Ms. Noren explained. "Because non-partisan candidates have no legal standing to have an observer, there is no legal deadline. So I ask that they follow the same deadline as party chairs." The 2012 April voting day is scheduled for April 3.
NEXT: Counting at County: An insider's guide to vote counting in Clerk Noren's office