At midnight on election night, five hours after the polls closed in the Democratic primary for St. Louis County executive, incumbent Steve Stenger declared victory. In his opponent Mark Mantovani’s camp, though, no one was quite willing to concede defeat.
The fact that Stenger only won by 1,157 votes – less than 1 percent of the total – along with the fact that electronic voting machines in St. Louis County District 5 malfunctioned and forced a manual count, meant that Mantovani was left unsure of what had really happened in his neck-to-neck race with Stenger.
“I have to understand the recount process, and I have to make a decision, but I’m not going to make that decision at 12:15 tonight,” he said.
“We’ll have to determine what our next steps are, in light of all these irregularities. In light of the uncertainty about how these votes were counted, we’ll evaluate our options. We just need to make certain the election was held in a proper fashion.”
Mantovani enjoyed strong black support, led by St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, one of Stenger’s strongest critics. The County Council has had an adversarial relationship with Stenger, a former council member from Affton, during his tenure as county executive. Stenger often skips council meetings, while some members of the council accuse him of dark-money connections and criticize his confrontational leadership style. This led to Proposition 2 being placed on the August 7 ballot, and its narrow passage changes the County Charter to empower the council to hire its own attorney. Previously, the council had to rely on the county counselor, who reports to the county executive.
At 9:30 p.m., with about 12 percent of precincts counted, Stenger held a 10 percent lead, but then Mantovani began to close in. At 10 p.m., when half the precincts were in, the challenger was only behind by 3 percent of the vote. By 11 p.m., the final results still weren’t in, though Stenger’s lead was down to 2 percent, with 90 percent of the vote counted. The remaining uncounted votes were in the Central Corridor.
“That’s good for us,” said a Mantovani campaign staffer.
The election results remained the same – with 11 percent of votes uncounted – until past 11:30 p.m.
“There seems to be some confusion at the election board,” Mantovani announced to the crowd. He said that, due to some voting machines being closed down incorrectly, ballots submitted electronically were being counted by hand.
At midnight, staff at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac Hotel, where Mantovani hosted his election watch party, informed the group that they would have to leave the hotel so hotel workers could go home.
“I wrote two speeches, and I don’t get to give either of them!” Mantovani joked to the crowd. “I wrote these two speeches – they’re both lovely, by the way – and I thought to myself, ‘What if it’s too close to call?’ Then I thought, ‘No, there’s a two-speech load limit.’”
He remembered when the election commissioners gave him a tour of the election board, where he was told that St. Louis County voting machines were purchased in 2004 and had a 10-year life span. Some parts of the voting machines, Mantovani said, are no longer produced, and must be purchased on eBay. He said that the election commissioners had asked for money to replace these old machines, and that Stenger had refused.
“Little did I know that, five months later, here we would be, held hostage by those damn antiquated machines,” Mantovani said. “Such is life.”
Eric Fey, Democratic director of elections for the county, said there were no “irregularities” in the vote count, contrary to Mantovani’s claims.
“The vote count progressed normally last night,” Fey told The American. “Our next steps will be to count the remaining absentee and provisional ballots. We will certify the results on August 21 per state law.”
Mid-afternoon on Wednesday, August 8, Mantovani seemed to have taken the election’s board word for that.
“With respect to yesterday’s county executive election, currently it is not our intention to contest the election. We've been advised that there are uncounted and outstanding provisional ballots that currently exceed the current difference between the Stenger and Mantovani vote totals. Under those circumstances, it is probably necessary and appropriate to allow the normal statutory election procedures to be completed and allow the election board to certify the results according to its normal procedures,” the campaign stated.
“Mark Mantovani has great confidence in the election board and its leadership and he does not wish to extend the uncertainty associated with the election, but customary election procedures have to be carried out as they would be anyway.”
Regardless of the outcome after the last ballot is counted, Mantovani said that St. Louis County voters sent a clear message in the Democratic primary: Something needs to change. Stenger’s two closest allies in county government, Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and Councilman Pat Dolan, both lost by wide margins, the County Council passed two propositions to spite Stenger (the other, Proposition 3, allows council members to work as independent contractors for other government entities) and, if Stenger’s narrow victory stands, Stenger barely won.
“I think it’s clear from all of these races that the community believes the county needs change, and a new sort of leadership,” Mantovani said. “It’s clear that voters in St. Louis County feel there is a need for change.”
Mantovani almost certainly would be part of that change were it not for one positive for Stenger (the strong labor support to defeat Proposition A driving Stenger voters to the polls) and one negative for himself (his campaign contribution to Eric Greitens’ gubernatorial bid, which Stenger used to paint Mantovani as a Republican in disguise). It also did not help him that the Post-Dispatch’s endorsement for his candidacy appeared in a Thursday edition (circulation: 91,1535) rather than a more widely circulated edition such as a Sunday (circulation: 155,540).
Speaking of Republicans, the two Republican candidates for county executive, Paul Berry III (who won the Republican primary) and Daniel Sampson tallied only 56,374 votes between them, so the winner of the Democratic primary – Stenger, at this point, who got 91,487 votes – is virtually assured to win the general election. However, if Berry, who is black, wins his longshot bid against the Democratic nominee in the strongly Democratic county, then St. Louis County would have elected its second African-American county executive.
Maria goes back to the House
The August 7 primary saw an oddity take place: A term-limited state senator was reelected to her old seat in the lower house, where she still has a term she can serve. Maria Chappelle-Nadal – who got national exposure during Ferguson for bearing witness at protests and calling then-Gov. Jay Nixon a name you can’t print in the paper – beat three other candidates for her old 86th District House seat, which Joe Adams vacated to run for state Senate (a race he lost to Brian Williams). She will be able to serve one more term, and then will be barred by term limits from running for the state House or Senate again.