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Some Missouri Election Officials And Voters Want More Absentee Ballots During Coronavirus Crisis

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
Some Missouri election officials want lawmakers to change state law making it clear that voters can request an absentee ballot during a pandemic.

Sandy Diamond is planning to vote this year, even with high anxiety over the spread of the coronavirus. 

If the University City resident must vote in person, she’ll put on a mask and practice social distancing to participate in democracy. But Diamond would like to see policymakers come up with ways to make more Missourians feel safe participating in the upcoming elections — including expanding access to absentee ballots.

It’s an idea that’s gained traction with a bipartisan group of election officials.

“I'm just hoping that they do change some of the laws that will make it safer for the voter to feel comfortable voting,” Diamond said. “These elections are very important, and they should do everything in their power to make sure that people feel safe in casting their vote this year.”

Some local elections officials are pushing the Missouri General Assembly to specifically allow people to request an absentee ballot because of a pandemic, a move that could reduce crowds at polling places over the next few months. But whether that bill finds favor with legislators, or Gov. Mike Parson, isn’t clear.

National debate, local focus

A voter fills out a ballot at Central Baptist Church on March 10, 2020.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri election officials are trying allay concerns about spreading COVID-19 at the polls by pushing for more access to absentee ballots.

The safety of elections has emerged as one of the biggest public policy issues since the virus started to spread. Many people are advocating for expanding what’s known as vote-by-mail as a means to prevent people from contracting the virus.

But the term vote-by-mail doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s because there’s a huge difference between states like Oregon and Washington that send every registered voter a ballot and making absentee ballots more accessible. 

Some Missouri county clerks from both political parties are pushing for the second option, especially since pivoting to an Oregon- or Washington-style system would require a major buildup of infrastructure to store and process mailed-in ballots — as well as a system to verify signatures. 

Some local jurisdictions are taking direct action. The St. Louis County Board of Elections is sending out absentee ballot applications to voters over age 60, including Sunset Hills resident Reed Radcliffe. He was happy to get the ballots, especially because his wife is immunocompromised.

“I think it’s absolutely a good move,” Radcliffe said. “I think a lot of people wouldn’t even go vote, because they’re afraid of contracting the virus. I mean, some of my neighbors won’t even go to the grocery store or anywhere.”

But some election officials said the Legislature needs to take additional steps. Even though voters can get an absentee ballot in Missouri due to incapacity or confinement because of illness, there’s not universal agreement among local election officials about whether that applies to the coronavirus pandemic. 

That’s why Democratic Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon and Republican Greene County Clerk Shane Schoellerwant lawmakers to pass a billallowing for an absentee ballot to be requested because of a pandemic or an emergency.

“I’ve had voters tell me they’re just not going to cast a ballot in the upcoming election. And that’s heartbreaking,” Lennon said. “And when it’s something that I can’t make any better without a legislative change, that’s why there are so many election officials on both sides of the aisle that are trying to make this better. Because we hear from voters every day.”

Added Schoeller: “We want voters to be able to have that clear reason and make that decision.”

Murky future

Haahr presiding over a nearly empty House chamber on April 8, 2020 as lawmakers vote in groups of four on the supplemental budget
Credit Tim Bommel | Missouri House Communications
Missouri House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, presides over his chamber earlier this month. Lawmakers are expected to come back to Jefferson City on Monday.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Jefferson City on Monday. But it’s not clear whether they will take any action on expanding absentee balloting during a pandemic. 

House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said allowing for absentee ballots during a pandemic is going to be “one of the things that we're going to try to work on in the last few weeks that's non-budgetary related.”

“Because this may not be the last time that the counties or the state have to declare an emergency,” Haahr said. “And I think it's important that we give both the clerks, but also the voters, some guidance on how they're able to exercise their right to vote during such a situation.”

Parson said he's not taking a position on the idea until he sees what lawmakers actually pass.

“I know well enough a lot of times when a bill comes forward that’s got a lot of other things in there you’re not expecting,” Parson said. “Point being: If that bill comes through, and it’s a clean bill, and the Legislature and the secretary of state and the county clerks sign off on it, we’ll make that decision at that time.”

Haahr said Parson would likely sign legislation if it meets his outlined concerns. 

“I don't think he wants to box itself into any sort of commitments,” Haahr said. 

Still, some groups are looking to the courts, as opposed to the Legislature, for action. 

The ACLU of Missouri filed a lawsuit last week seeking clarity about whether current state law allows for a voter to obtain an absentee ballot because of a pandemic. Tony Rothert of the ACLU says the suit is meant to provide assurances for election officials who don’t agree on the matter.

“And we hope that the statute is interpreted in a way that makes people able to vote without risking their lives and their families’ lives,” Rothert said.

June test looming

St. Louis voting stickers are seen on a table at Central Baptist Church in St. Louis on March 10, 2020.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis voting stickers are seen on a table at Central Baptist Church in St. Louis last month.

The first test for election officials will be on June 2, when a host of municipal offices will be up for grabs. Parson moved that election from April 7 because of coronavirus concerns.

Some are hoping to drum up more public support for expanding absentee ballot access, including Joan Lipkin. The St. Louis resident, who is a member of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, said proponents of such a move can make “a convincing case to the public about voting at home or absentee ballots as an urgent nonpartisan issue which we should all get behind.” 

“Republicans are also seniors. A lot of Republicans who are opposing this are making a lot of assumptions about who the voters are,” Lipkin said. “And I don't think that they should be doing that. So, I think this is something that will benefit all of us.”

Others remain optimistic that people will be safe voting at the polls, including Creve Coeur resident Suzette Allinger. In addition to being a frequent voter, Allinger has experience as a poll worker. And she said she’s confident voters who cast a ballot in person will practice social distancing guidelines.

“The rule is: Abide by the rules,” Allinger said. “So as long as they follow code, everybody's going to be fine.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

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