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No-Excuse Absentee Voting Period May Be Coming To Missouri

Illinois was one of three states that held primaries on March 17, 2020. Voter turnout was lower than usual, officials say.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri could implement a three-week period when a voter could cast an absentee ballot in person for any reason.

Lawmakers could be chipping away at Missouri’s excuse-based absentee ballot system by creating a three-week period in which voters can cast their ballots early in person.

But even though that proposal appears to have momentum, some election officials believe that the idea is still too restrictive — and largely keeps in place an ineffective excuse-based system that scares voters from casting absentee ballots.

In order to cast an absentee ballot in Missouri, a voter has to check off a specific excuse — such as being out of town on Election Day or being physically incapacitated. Lawmakers expanded the parameters because of the coronavirus, but those changes expired at the end of the year.

Legislation that passed out of the Missouri House would allow county clerks or election authorities to set up a three-week period in which voters could cast absentee ballots in person for any reason. They would have to show a government-issued photo ID, and if they don’t have one, they could cast a provisional ballot.

State Rep. Dan Shaul, R-Imperial, who is chairman of the House Elections Committee, says the proposal is a result of compromise between GOP lawmakers who aren’t enamored with early voting and Democrats who want to expand the practice.

“We think the three weeks is fair,” said Shaul, adding that people can still cast an absentee ballot in the first three weeks of the absentee ballot period with an excuse. “I had many members of the committee wanting to take it to one week of no excuse. There’s an opportunity for it to be adjusted in the future.”

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said that while his preference is for voters to cast their ballots on Election Day, he liked the idea that the no-excuse option would be limited to people who submit their absentee ballots in person.

“I'm a big believer in voting in person,” Ashcroft said. “I'm a big believer in limiting the number of people that vote early as long as we make sure that people have a great opportunity to vote. This is a compromise.”

Missouri election officials have long advocated for getting rid of the excuse-based absentee ballot system, primarily because there’s no way for them to prove that the reason someone is voting early is actually true. Some contend that the primary impact of the excuse-based system is scaring people out of casting an absentee ballot even though there’s almost no chance of getting in trouble if the reason they provide doesn't come to pass.

“It’s essentially an unenforceable system,” said Eric Fey, St. Louis County Democratic elections director.

Still, Fey said the organization that represents clerks and election authorities do like the idea of a three-week, no-excuse, in-person absentee window since it could ease crowding on Election Day and the workload on officials.

“The association’s preference, and my preference, is that no-excuse absentee balloting would just be across the board for all methods of voting and for six weeks,” Fey said. “Obviously that is not making headway in the General Assembly. But the association is supportive of the concept of three-weeks, no-excuse absentee voting. We think that would be of great help to election administrators across Missouri.”

Shaul said this could be a first step to future expansion of absentee voting.

“They realize that if this system works for three weeks, they’ll come back and ask for the other three weeks,” Shaul said. “And I think that’s a reasonable ask on their behalf. But I think this is a good compromise.”

State Rep. Kevin Windham, Jr., speaks during a February 2020 committee hearing.
File photo | Tim Bommel | House Communications
State Rep. Kevin Windham, shown in February 2020, is the ranking member of the House Elections Committee and an opponent of the legislation that includes the no-excuse, in-person absentee period. The Hillsdale Republican doesn't like how the bill includes a photo ID requirement.

Democrats criticize photo ID requirement

Some House Democrats have been highly critical of other parts of Rep. Don Rone’s legislation that’s passed out of the House — especially the part reactivating Missouri’s government-issued photo identification requirement.

The Missouri Supreme Court struck down part of the state’s photo ID law in 2020. That ruling upheld a lower court decision that removed a requirement for a voter without an ID to sign an affidavit. That meant that someone without a government-issued photo ID could cast a regular ballot without a sworn statement.

Rone’s legislation states that a person without a government-issued photo ID would be able to cast a provisional ballot. That’s one of the reasons that Rep. Joe Adams, D-University City, and a member of the House Elections Committee, opposes the legislation.

“I do like the idea of no-excuse absentee voting,” Adams said. “But the problem with the bill is it requires it in person, it’s only three weeks, and it’s connected to a lousy piece of legislation and voter suppression.”

Shaul said pushing that proposal is in line with what Missourians wanted in 2016, when they passed a constitutional amendment authorizing the General Assembly to enact a photo ID requirement for voting. Both Shaul and Ashcroft said that the proposed legislation would leave a provision in the existing photo ID law in place paying for supporting documentation, such as a birth certificate, to get government-issued identification.

“I don’t think it’s disenfranchising anyone,” Shaul said. “And we’ve made sure there’s mechanisms in place. Even if you don’t have an ID and you show up that day to vote, you’re still going to be able to vote. It’ll be a provisional ballot. And after your identity is proven, it will be counted as a regular ballot.”

But Missouri Democrats like state Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, said the photo ID requirement is a nonstarter. He also doesn’t like that the three week, no-excuse, in-person absentee period goes away if a court strikes the photo ID measure down.

“Some of the proponents of this photo ID law that’s been proposed in Missouri will say it’s not a strict photo ID because it allows for a provisional ballot,” said Windham, who is the ranking Democratic member of the House Elections Committee. “However, those provisional ballots are never counted at the same time as all the other ballots — and sometimes not at all.”

Rone’s legislation with the photo ID and no-excuse, in-person absentee provisions are currently awaiting action in the Senate.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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