When Phil Lindsey went to vote in the Missouri primary election, he took his poll notification card, a bank statement and $500 to bail himself out of jail.
A little after 10 a.m. on August 5, the 63-year-old strolled into the basement of East Alton Community of Christ Church in Independence, where he had exercised his civic duty for the past eight years. But the longtime activist didn't cast a ballot that day. Instead, he became Jackson County's most notorious voter.
A man of short stature and graying hair, Lindsey isn't an imposing presence. But his voice swells with suspicion and resentment when he talks about the right to vote and a system he believes is fatally flawed. "There's no way those races came out the way they did," he says of elections since 1998. "Somebody had their thumb on the scale."
Lindsey is used to being called a conspiracy theorist. Ryan Hobart, a spokesman for the Missouri secretary of state, says there's been no indication of any significant voter fraud or election tampering of any kind during the tenure of current Secretary Robin Carnahan or her predecessor, Matt Blunt.
After Election Day 2004, Lindsey decided that the only solution to mismanagement and lack of transparency at the polls was direct action. He started a group called Show Me the Vote, which mounted an initiative to amend the Missouri Constitution to require paper ballots and hand counting at each precinct. Lindsey needed 140,000 signatures. "We didn't get into the six figures," he says, "but we were well into the fives."
In 2006, he fought a bill in the Missouri Legislature that required voters to present a photo ID before they could cast a ballot. The law passed, but it was struck down by the state Supreme Court before the end of the year.
Lindsey says election workers have continued to ask voters for picture and signature identification. There is some evidence of that. According to a report from the secretary of state about the 2006 election cycle, "Nearly one-fifth of all issues received by the secretary of state's office were voters reporting that they had been wrongly asked for photo or signature ID." Hobart says the issues associated with those 26 complaints have been resolved. Lindsey isn't so sure.
When he tried to sign in to cast his primary ballot on August 5, election workers asked him for ID. Lindsey offered a voter notification card — the small slip that voters receive in the mail alerting them of their polling place. The poll worker told Lindsey that wasn't a valid form of voter ID. So Lindsey pulled a bank statement out of his back pocket. Lindsey says the poll person insisted that he present something with a signature. The activist had his driver's license in his wallet, but he wanted to set a precedent for the 200,000 people who don't have such identification and aren't required by law to produce it.
"I decided this was a matter of principle," he says. "It felt like I was being bullied. It felt like I was being abused as a citizen. It was a way to show my dissatisfaction, to say, 'No, I'm going to dig in here.'"
That's when Charlene Davis, co-director of the Jackson County Election Board, says she got a call from a group of confused seniors. She says the election workers did what they were trained to do by calling the office and asking about the bank statement. Davis says she told them that the document entitled Lindsey to vote.
"They attempted to tell him that, but he was screaming and yelling and calling them everything imaginable," Davis says.
Lindsey says he was argumentative but not abusive. He says poll workers told him to leave and that one of them bumped against his chest. Soon, Independence police were questioning the activist in the parking lot. The police report includes complaints from poll workers that Lindsey "began to yell and pound his fists on the table, causing a large disturbance." Police told Lindsey he could show the ID that the poll workers wanted, leave or be arrested for disorderly conduct. "Philip chose the latter," a police officer wrote. "I placed handcuffs on Philip and double-locked them for his safety."
Lindsey knew he might be arrested that day, so he quickly posted $300 bond to get out of jail. But Independence City Prosecutor Mitch Langford charged Lindsey with disorderly conduct. At the trial, John Slama, who was working at the polls that day, claimed that Lindsey had been loud and abusive after being asked for proper ID. But after having questions repeated to him several times, the hard-of-hearing senior couldn't describe what he meant by abusive and admitted that Lindsey did not threaten him. For his part, Lindsey seemed the portrait of civility in the courtroom, speaking in a low voice with his arms folded in front of him. The municipal judge wasn't convinced. He found Lindsey guilty and ordered a $50 fine. Lindsey is sticking to principle and appealing the ruling in state court.
He hasn't put his efforts on hold while waiting for his next day in court. At the end of September, he sent an open letter from Show Me the Vote to each of the 116 election directors in the state, asking them to publicly pledge to accept state-sanctioned IDs and "err on the side of allowing" a vote if there was any confusion. By mid-October, he had received a dozen polite replies and a handful of phone calls from county officials across the state. "We haven't had anyone sending letter bombs or anything," he says.
In his most recent endeavor, though, Lindsey went undercover. On October 4, he and three other Show Me the Vote members made a stealthy attempt to ask a random sample of voters what ID they had used in the August primary. At the Ameristar Casino, he sat at the blackjack table, just an amiable gambler looking to chat about politics. He says one woman told him that she had presented her driver's license, but the poll worker asked her to drive home and get her lease. "That was a stunner," Lindsey says.
He and his fellow volunteers spoke to 144 people that day, 11 of whom said they had been asked to show additional documentation after presenting photo ID. A few Show Me the Vote members have signed up to work polls in eastern Jackson County. "So we'll have some eyes on the inside," he says.
Davis isn't worried. She says that in her 34 years with the Jackson County Election Office, no eligible voter has been turned away for lack of proper ID. Hobart says the mistakes of 2006 have been resolved, and every election precinct gets a handy poster from the secretary of state's office showing both voters and officials what's acceptable. Davis adds that Jackson County workers get charts and handbooks and plenty of education. "We're much more liberal than even the law says," Davis says.
Her take on Lindsey: "He's just trying to cause trouble."
Lindsey still has plans for Election Day. In recent weeks, he has contacted the roughly 400 people on his mailing list who live within 50 miles of Kansas City. On November 4, he plans to have "feet on the ground" in a number of polling places in Platte, Clay and Jackson counties. He'll be on the phone, ready to track irregularities and report them to the secretary of state. Now that the story of his polling-place arrest has spread across the Internet, he'll probably be in touch with activists around the nation, too.
"And I'll be trying to avoid being beat up at my own polling station," he adds with a laugh.
Davis says Lindsey won't get any flack from Jackson County officials, whether he comes bearing a bank statement or a bubble-gum wrapper. According to Missouri law, if two election judges know the voter, he or she need not show ID.
"Believe me, they know who Mr. Lindsey is," Davis says of the East Alton Church poll workers. "He shouldn't need anything to vote."
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