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Missouri Supreme Court Upholds Notary Requirement For Most Mail-In Ballots

An illustration showing a person sitting at a table filling out an absentee ballot.
Nat Thomas
St. Louis Public Radio
Voters who want to use mail-in ballots in November will have to get them notarized, but they will be able to drop off a completed ballot at their local election authorities, under two court rulings handed down on Friday.

The Missouri Supreme Court has rejected efforts by voting rights groups to make it easier to vote by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In an opinion issued Friday, the state’s high court agreed with a lower court judge that a fear of contracting COVID-19 was not the same as being unable to vote because of illness.

The ruling has its roots in an April lawsuit filed by the Missouri NAACP and the League of Women Voters. They argued the Missouri law allowing individuals to cast an absentee ballot if they cannot vote in person due to “incapacity or confinement due to illness or physical disability” should apply to individuals who wished to stay home to avoid contracting COVID-19. Individuals who are eligible for an absentee ballot because of illness do not have to have their signature validated by a notary.

Gov. Mike Parson signed legislation in June that waived the notary requirement for individuals at high risk of COVID-19, including those over 65, people living in long-term care facilities or those with heart or lung conditions. Anyone who wanted to could request a mail-in ballot, but the notary requirement remained in place.

In oral arguments Tuesday, the groups called for eliminating the notary requirement completely.

“Voters are saddled with a notary requirement that forces them to choose between risking their health and those of their loved ones and their right to vote,” said attorney Sophia Lin Lakin.

But the judges agreed with the state that fear of getting sick is not the same as being unable to vote because of illness. The opinion also says that while voting is a fundamental right, voting absentee is not.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said in a statement that he was “thankful that the court made the right decision and Missouri voters have the right to a safe and secure election.”

Mail-in ballot acceptance

Also on Friday, a federal judge in Kansas City ruled thatvalid mail-in ballots dropped off at local election authorities by the voter or a close relative by the time the polls close on Election Day must be counted.

Civil rights groups including the Organization for Black Struggle had argued the requirement to mail in a ballot that had to be received by Election Day combined with “the unreliability of mail delivery, and the COVID-19 pandemic, impose an undue burden on Missouri voters’ fundamental right to vote in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and must be struck down.”

The groups had also asked U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes to require that otherwise valid ballots or applications for ballots with immaterial errors be accepted, and to give voters who have made those errors a chance to correct them. He declined to do so.

Ashcroft said he was “disappointed a federal judge decided to legislate from the bench and overturn the will of the people, through their elected representatives, to have safe and secure elections.”

He asked Attorney General Eric Schmitt to immediately appeal the decision.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.