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St. Louis Prepares For Election With Scaled-Down Absentee Ballot Options

absentee ballot counting process
David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio

Josh Savage cast an absentee ballot for the upcoming election in St. Louis, which will feature a wide-open mayor’s race and competitive contests for the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

He’s been voting absentee for years because he’s disabled, but he thinks anyone should be able to vote that way.

“I mean the better way to do it is to open up absentee ballots to everybody without regard,” Savage said. “There doesn’t need to be a reason. You want to vote absentee, you vote absentee.”

More Missourians than ever before voted absentee last year when lawmakers expanded allowances because of COVID-19. But those changes went away in 2021.

Now, many local election officials who have wanted to scrap the current system for years believe it should be permanently scuttled.

It’s highly unlikely that a no-excuse absentee system will emerge before St. Louis residents vote in March and April. Lawmakers are working on plans that would expand that possibility, but whether it actually makes it to the legislative finish line is an open question.

Snow blankets the ground before Missouri Governor Mike Parson is scheduled to give his State of the State address on Wednesday, January 27, 2021, at the Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City.
Daniel Shular
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri lawmakers expanded absentee voting last year because of COVID-19 concerns. But those changes went away after the end of 2020.

Now you see it, now you don’t

In the middle of 2020, lawmakers approved legislation that would expand absentee ballot options.

The measure that Gov. Mike Parson signed into law did two major things: It created a new excuse to check off for people who had contracted COVID-19 or were susceptible to the virus. People who met that criteria could mail their ballot back or cast it at a county clerk or election authority office without a notary.

The bill also created a mail-in ballot option that could be requested for any reason. But voters had to mail it back and get it notarized. They couldn’t drop it off at a county clerk or election authority’s office. And perhaps because of those rigid parameters, this option wasn’t used that often and was widely panned for being confusing.

There was another catch: The changes to the absentee ballot system expired in December 2020. And that means election officials like Gary Stoff of the St. Louis Board of Elections have had to field calls from voters who are wondering how to vote absentee for the March and April city contests.

“And what we tell folks is those options are no longer available,” Stoff said. “And if you meet one of the other reasons to vote absentee ballot, you can still vote an absentee ballot.”

Those reasons could include being out of town on Election Day or being ill or incapacitated. But one of the long-running complaints about the excuse system is that there’s no way for election officials to determine whether someone is telling the truth.

“We frankly have no way of knowing if someone checks a particular box and says whatever they say. We have no way of knowing whether that’s true or not,” Stoff said. “We have to accept that at face value.”

Since last Friday, Stoff said his office has had about 20 people vote in-person absentee and sent about 2,000 ballots out to residents. He said that’s pretty comparable to other city elections.

State Rep. Peggy McGaugh, seen here in this Feb. 2020 photo before the COVID-19 pandemic began, is pushing to expand no excuse absentee voting. The Carrolton Republican previously served as Carroll County's clerk.
Tim Bommel
State Rep. Peggy McGaugh, shown in February 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic began, is pushing to expand no-excuse absentee voting. The Carrollton Republican previously served as Carroll County's clerk.

Legislative push

Even though the excuse system is roundly seen as toothless from an enforcement standpoint, that doesn’t mean it is ineffectual. Some critics of the excuse system believe that it scares away people from voting absentee who are fearful they’ll get in trouble for making up an excuse.

That’s part of the reason why some lawmakers from both parties are trying to expand no-excuse absentee voting during the 2021 session. They include Republican Rep. Peggy McGaugh of Carrollton.

Before being elected to the Missouri House, McGaugh spent several decades as a local elections official. She’s working on a proposal that, among other things, would include a three-week period before an election when someone could vote in-person absentee for any reason.

“With this bill, if you come to the county clerk’s office with your photo ID, you don’t have to worry about a notary,” McGaugh said. “You don’t have to worry about a thing. You just come and get your ballot. So we need to cut down on confusion.”

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said late last year that he would be willing to consider proposals that would expand in-person absentee voting.

McGaugh said she’s working with the House research office to come up with the bill’s language. One potential source of conflict is requiring a photo ID in order to vote in-person absentee. McGaugh said the Secretary of State’s office is available to help people get a photo ID that’s not a driver’s license.

“No one needs to be scared of coming to vote,” McGaugh said.

Rep. Rasheen Aldridge takes his seat after being sworn in to the Missouri House of Representatives on the first day of the legislative session. (Jan. 8, 2020)
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, seen in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic began, said many of his constituents in St. Louis are confused about why they don't have the same absentee ballot option that they had in 2020.

The road ahead

Even though eliminating the excuse system has bipartisan support, it hasn’t had a lot of legislative momentum in years past.

State Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, said he’s heard from constituents in his district who are confused about trying to vote absentee safely when the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing. He said he likes some aspects of McGaugh’s proposal but is not in favor of requiring a government-issued photo ID to participate in the no-excuse absentee ballot process.

“I like the idea of opening up a window for this kind of early voting period or absentee voting,” Aldridge said. “But I think the current documentation that the Board of Elections sends out, like a voter card to your address, is something that can be used. I think the current steps that we already have works.”

For his part, St. Louis resident Brooks Powell doesn’t have a lot of faith that lawmakers will act.

“I don’t feel like they have the best interests of the people that live here,” he said.

Powell voted absentee last year but says he won’t vote in March or April’s elections because the risk of getting COVID-19 when voting in person is too high.

That’s a decision other Missourians likely will have to make in the weeks ahead.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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