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No Excuse? No Problem — That’s Where Some Want To Move Missouri’s Absentee Ballot System

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, shown at the Board of Elections warehouse on July 30, to handle a huge increase in absentee and mail-in ballots. Some election officials want to remove the list of excuses to obtain an absentee ballot.

The coronavirus pandemic exposed Missouri’s complex absentee balloting system.

Before 2020, voters needed to check off a specific excuse to vote earlier. But on the final day of this year’s General Assembly regular session, lawmakers expanded how Missourians could cast an absentee ballot in a manner that many found confusing and unintuitive.

With that absentee ballot expansion set to go away at the end of the year, some election officials and lawmakers want to keep things simple on how to permanently change how Missourians vote early.

“They don’t need an excuse. Just come in and get it done,” said Republican Henry County Clerk Rick Watson. “We work so hard to get people registered. I don’t know why we can’t make it easier to cast their ballot without having to make up an excuse that they’re not going to be able to go to the poll.”

Many of Missouri’s county clerks and election authority officials have wanted to scrap the state’s list of possible excuses to obtain an absentee ballot for years, contending, among other things, that it’s basically impossible to do anything if voters don’t actually have a reason for voting early. And while nobody feels the push for a no-excuse system will be a slam dunk, supporters are hoping the idea gains more traction after this year’s contentious election cycle.

“The Legislature has not had much appetite for election administration reform lately,” said St. Louis County Democratic Elections Director Eric Fey. “I don’t know if I hold out a lot of hope. But if there’s any chance, it should probably be this session because it’s front in everybody’s mind after the presidential election.”

Close up of the many candidate signs outside the voting place at the Ballwin Golf Course and Events Center on Election Day Tuesday, November 3, 2020.
Theo R. Welling
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri had an unprecedented amount of early voting in 2020.

Without teeth

Before 2020, Missouri voters had to select a specific excuse to receive an absentee ballot. That included being out of town, incapacity or confinement due to illness or religious objections. On the final day of the legislative session, lawmakers added a reason: contracting or being susceptible to COVID-19. Voters needed to get absentee ballots notarized if they chose any excuse besides incapacity due to illness or having or being at risk for COVID-19.

Legislators also created an option to request a ballot for any reason. But that ballot could only be returned through the mail and had to be notarized. It couldn’t be dropped off at an election authority or county clerk’s office, which is probably why it wasn’t used much during the 2020 general election.

According to the secretary of state’s website, about 60,000 people requested the mail-in option, while more than 816,000 requested an absentee ballot.

As of Nov. 1, more than 827,000 people voted absentee or mail-in during the general election. By contrast, about 282,000 people voted absentee during the 2016 general election. These figures include people who voted in-person absentee.

What some election officials and lawmakers want to do is allow voters to request an absentee ballot for any reason — and be able to mail or drop that ballot off at an election authority. They also want people to be able to vote absentee in person at any county clerk or Board of Elections office with no excuse.

In addition to providing convenience for voters, Watson, whose county has about 22,000 people and about 14,000 registered voters, said it would help in administering the election.

“It relieves the stress at the polls,” Watson said. “We had lines, but they were nothing compared to four years ago, because we processed 2,800 absentee ballots. Four years ago, we had maybe 1,200.”

State Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis
Tim Bommel I House Communications
State Rep. Wiley Price, shown in 2019, said the excuse system is antiquated since election officials can't actually check whether someone is telling the truth about why they need to vote early.

The other reason that election officials and lawmakers cite for wanting to move away from the excuse system is there’s basically no way to prove if someone is actually going to be out of town on Election Day or was stricken with COVID-19. That effectively makes Missouri a no-excuse absentee state if voters aren’t being truthful.

“There’s no teeth in that system,” said state Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis. “And to be honest, that is voter fraud. So if you guys want to cut down on voter fraud, you get rid of that stupid … system and you make it no excuse so people don’t have to lie to the government to involve themselves in the democracy.”

2021 breakthrough?

The GOP-controlled Legislature has tended not to advance efforts to eliminate the excuse system of absentee voting, even though some Republicans support such a move. A number of lawmakers have prefiled legislation to shift to no excuse absentee balloting, including Sen.-elect Elaine Gannon, R-Jefferson County, and Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City.

Arthur said that Republican lawmakers may be more receptive to the idea because 2020 showed that a huge increase in absentee voting didn’t really help Democrats gain meaningful ground throughout Missouri.

“It isn’t a political issue,” Arthur said. “It is about a foundational right that is enshrined in the Constitution.”

Gov. Mike Parson delivers his first State of the State address Jan. 16, 2019.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson says he wants to hear from Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft about changes made to the absentee ballot system.

For his part, Gov. Mike Parson told reporters in early November that he expects there to be a discussion about the future of absentee balloting.

“I wouldn’t make any predictions today,” Parson said. “But I know this: Our election went off really well here in the state of Missouri. … The secretary of state would be the guy who I would like to have a conversation with to see where we go. But if things go well, I’m always a guy who will put things on the table to figure out where we’re going to go for the people of Missouri.”

In an interview, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft reiterated that he isn’t a fan of sending absentee ballots through the mail. He did say he would be open to figuring out ways to expand in-person absentee voting.

“We want people voting in person as much as possible,” Ashcroft said. “Now we see some suggestions that we make it harder to vote absentee by mail, but we make it easier for people to vote absentee in person. There may be some tradeoffs there. I’m willing to look at that.”

State Rep. Peggy McGaugh, R-Carrollton, filed legislation last year that would have allowed people to vote in-person absentee for any reason while keeping the excuse system in place for, say, mailing a ballot back. The proposal passed out of a House committee but did not make it out of the chamber.

Stamp of approval

One other sticking point in the potential debate over absentee voting could be whether to keep requiring ballots to be notarized.

Some officials, such as Ashcroft, support keeping that provision in place.

“We have substantially better confirmation that the individual who was supposed to cast the ballot did when there is a third party that validates their identification and puts their notary stamp on that, signs it and dates it,” Ashcroft said.

Jenny Garmon, a legal and government information specialist with the Kansas City Library and a notary public, displays the stamp she uses to notarize voters who bring mail-in ballots. She was at the Kansas City Health Department on Tuesday, where she regularly helps voters get registered.
Carlos Moreno
Jenny Garmon, a legal and government information specialist with the Kansas City Library and a notary public, displays the stamp she uses to notarize voters who bring mail-in ballots. Some policymakers want to get rid of the notary requirement, contending it's inconvenient to voters.

Democrats have generally been cool to the notary requirement.

Rep.-elect Betsy Fogle, R-Springfield, who narrowly unseated an incumbent in November, said voters she encountered tended to be confused about why they needed their ballots notarized. She also said it went against the reason for expanding absentee voting: preventing people and election workers from being exposed to COVID-19.

“Getting something notarized required interaction with one another,” Fogle said. “So I think it was counterintuitive to the initial point of loosening our absentee voting.”

Fey noted that Missouri is something of an outlier when it comes to requiring absentee ballots to be notarized.

“What’s also really strange is that Missouri does not require the election officials to verify the signatures on the absentee ballots,” Fey said. “Now in St. Louis County, we do. And a lot of other counties, they do that. But it’s not required by law. I think something the Legislature should maybe talk through or walk through is does it make more sense to have a bipartisan team of election officials who have been trained in signature verification verify the signatures rather than an unsupervised notary who has just filled some paperwork out online?

“I think that’s a good question,” Fey added. “But I want to emphasize that I don’t think there’s a consensus among elected authorities on that.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.