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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Yes, There Is A Difference In Missouri Between Absentee And Mail-In Voting

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has approved a petition to allow Missouri voters to decide whether to expand Medicaid.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri has several options for people who want to vote from home — or want to vote early and not use the U.S. Postal Service.

With concerns growing about the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle a huge expected increase in nontraditional voting, national attention is gravitating toward state guidelines around absentee and mail-in voting.

The general counsel for the Postal Service wrote to Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft that voters should send ballots to their county clerk or board of elections office no later than Oct. 27 if they want their ballots to count. That’s because elections officials must have mail-in ballots by 7 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3, for them to count, which some Missouri Democrats want to change.

If anything, the focus on the Postal Service is showcasing how Missouri offers a number of different options to vote early without using the mail. And it’s prompting election officials and advocates to point out that there is a difference in Missouri between absentee voting and mail-in voting — especially when it comes to delivering the ballots so that they count.

So with Missouri’s absentee voting period set to start in a month, here are answers to key questions to help cast your ballot in time.

What is the difference between voting absentee and mail-in voting?

To vote absentee in Missouri, you have to check off one of seven excuses — including being away from the place where you vote on Election Day or religious belief. Two of the excuses, incapacity or confinement due to illness or physical disability and having contracted or being at risk to COVID-19, do not require a notary. The other five excuses do need a notary if you’re going to mail your absentee ballot back to your county clerk or board of elections.

The mail-in option, which was created earlier this year, doesn’t require an excuse. But it does require a notary, which was a big source of contention among lawmakers as the plan worked its way through the General Assembly. And it must be mailed back through the U.S. Mail to an election authority.

The Missouri Secretary of State’s office has compiled a list of notaries that will notarize ballots for free. You can find that list here.

(Note: For the rest of this article, we’ll use the terms “absentee ballots” to describe voting either from home or in-person early with an excuse. And we’ll use “mail-in ballots” to describe the relatively new process of getting a ballot at your house and sending it back through the mail.)

Can you explain the new COVID-19-related excuse for absentee balloting?

If you contracted COVID-19 or are at risk to contract it, you can check off the seventh item on the absentee ballot application and return the absentee ballot without a notary. “At-risk” is defined as meeting any of these conditions:

  • Being 65 or older.
  • Living in a long-term care facility.
  • Having a serious heart condition.
  • Having asthma or chronic lung disease.
  • Being immunocompromised.
  • Having chronic kidney or liver disease.
  • Having diabetes.

If you check this box, you do not have to get your ballot notarized, and you can return it to your county clerk or board of elections either through the mail or in person.

Do you have to provide proof that you either got COVID-19 or are at-risk of getting COVID-19?


After posing this exact question on Twitter, Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon replied: “We do not require documentation of underlying conditions to vote absentee (much the same as we can’t ask for documentation of a permanent illness or disability).”

Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller added, “I am not aware of any local election official in our state that would require documentation, as the law does not direct that to take place.”

St. Louis County hired 30 bipartisan teams to tally a record amount of absentee and mail-in ballots at the St. Louis County Board of Elections warehouse on July 30. 7/30/20
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County hired 30 bipartisan teams to tally a record number of absentee and mail-in ballots at the St. Louis County Board of Elections warehouse on July 30.

Do you have to use the Postal Service to drop off your absentee or mail-in ballots?

It depends on which option you choose.

If you receive your absentee ballot at your house, you can fill it out and drop it off in person at your county clerk or board of elections. In fact, state law allows a relative to drop the absentee ballot off for you. You can also send it to the election authority of your county through the mail.

But if you request a mail-in ballot, you must send it back through the mail. You cannot drop these types of ballots off in person.

What about in-person absentee?

Missouri allows people to go to their county clerk or board of elections facilities and vote absentee in person. When you vote absentee in person, you don’t show up and take your ballot home. You vote at the board of elections or county clerk’s office. This process will start on Sept. 22. You should check with your county clerk or board of elections about what time they’ll be open to handle this process.

You do not need to get your ballot notarized to vote in-person absentee, which runs until Nov. 2. Some places, like St. Louis County, have satellite offices where you can vote in-person absentee.

But to be extra clear: You cannot use the in-person absentee process to cast a mail-in ballot. That can only be done by sending your mail-in ballot back through the mail.

How can you apply for an absentee ballot or a mail-in ballot?

You can apply for an absentee ballot either in person or through the mail, e-mail or fax. The St. Louis County Board of Elections has a website detailing the different ways of applying for an absentee ballot. It also includes a form that you can fill out on your computer before you download or print.

You can apply for the mail-in option either by sending the application through the mail or dropping it off in person at your election authority.

When can you apply for an absentee ballot or a mail-in ballot?

Right now. In fact, election officials are highly encouraging people who want to send either absentee ballot or mail-in ballots through the mail to apply as early as possible and send the ballot back as soon as they can.

“If they give us the application form, we’ll go ahead and put it in the system,” said St. Charles County Elections Director Kurt Bahr. “We cannot mail the ballots out until Sept. 22. But on that day and the subsequent days thereafter, we’ll be mailing out hundreds if not thousands of absentee ballots or early vote-by mail ballots those first couple of days that absentee voting starts.”

I applied for a ballot and haven’t received it before Election Day — what should I do?

You can go to your county clerk or board of elections office and fill out a form attesting that you did not receive your ballot. Once an elections official makes sure they didn’t receive your ballot, then the ballot you cast at the election authority office will be counted.

When is the deadline to apply for an absentee or mail-in ballot?

To apply for either an absentee or mail-in ballot, the deadline is 5 p.m. Oct. 21.

As mentioned earlier, you have until Nov. 2 to vote in-person absentee.

Voting stations at Central Baptist Church in St. Louis on March 10, 2020.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Let’s say I got my absentee or mail-in ballot later than Oct. 27 and don’t have confidence that it will make it through the mail in time. What should I do?

You have a couple of options, depending on where you live.

Bahr said that in St. Charles County, a voter, or the close relative of a voter, can bring a completed absentee ballot to a polling place. Bahr added that an elections official will then deliver that ballot to his office election night and it will be counted on election night.

In some places, including St. Louis County, if someone brings an absentee to a polling location, that ballot will be surrendered and the individual can then vote in person. Completed absentee ballots can be dropped off at the Board of Elections headquarters on Election Day. In St. Louis County, a notary will be on site at the Board of Election headquarters in St. Ann in case that absentee ballot needs to be notarized.

If you receive a mail-in ballot and don’t feel like you’re going to have enough time to send it to your board of elections or county clerk’s office, here’s what you should do: Bring your unfilled ballot to your polling place on Election Day, surrender it to the elections official, and you will get a new ballot that can be turned in at that time.

You should check with your local county clerk or board of elections office to learn about the procedures for this situation.

“If you request an early vote-by-mail ballot and for whatever reason you’re still in town and you didn’t get it in the mail in time, then you can still vote on Election Day as long as you bring that ballot with you because you have to prove that you ’re not voting twice,” Bahr said.

What about Illinois? What are the requirements to vote by mail in that state?

In short, the rules are much more relaxed. You don’t need to provide an excuse to vote through the mail in Illinois — all you have to do is fill out an application. So in essence, there is no distinction between absentee and mail-in voting in Illinois.

You can read more about the guidelines for the state by clicking here. And you can request to vote through the mail by going to this website. The deadline to apply is 5 p.m. Oct. 29.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Corrected: August 23, 2020 at 3:07 PM CDT
A previous version of this story said that you can drop a completed absentee ballot off at a polling place and that an elections officials will take it to be counted that night. That option is available in St. Charles County. In other places, like St. Louis County, if someone brings an absentee ballot to a polling place, elections officials will provide that voter with a new ballot to be completed in person. Voters can drop a completed absentee ballot off on Election Day at the board of elections office.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.