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We Asked Missouri Voters: Do You Feel Safe Going To The Polls In The Time Of Coronavirus?

File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
With elections on the horizon, Missouri voters are questioning what it would look like to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.

As a mother, Katy Fechter said she makes it a point to bring her kids to the polls every election she votes in.

But this year, Fechter said, she may need to give up her right to vote to protect her son, who is considered high risk for contracting COVID-19 because of his asthma. That said, Fechter feels this presidential election is the most important one in her lifetime.

“So I guess I would have to weigh out the risks, right?”

With the process for producing a COVID-19 vaccine projected to take a year or longer, voters like Fechter are wondering what participation will look like during this pandemic. 

The November presidential election is six months away. Before that, the Missouri primary happens in August, and municipal elections take place even before that.

The absentee option

Voting from home via absentee ballot could be a solution, but some Missouri voters — like Lynn Weber — are skeptical the government will adjust laws in time.

“It's turning a battleship on a dime,” she said.

Missouri is one of 17 states that require an excuse for absentee voting. Voters can choose from six reasons to request an absentee ballot from their local election authority. Illinois does not require an excuse to vote with an absentee ballot.

Supporters of requiring a reason for voting absentee argue it prevents voter fraud, but others say it prevents groups — like minorities and those with disabilities — from voting. Now, with elections ahead, the coronavirus pandemic has set a new fire under the debate for at-home voting.

People who want the Missouri law to be changed say that removing barriers to absentee voting will allow people who are high risk for coronavirus infection to vote safely. 

As an American citizen, Weber said she believes voting is her most important responsibility. She lives in rural Missouri, and neither she nor her husband are homebound or sick. Still, at 62 years old, she feels vulnerable. 

“I would almost risk my health to go and vote in person to know that my vote is counted,” Weber said. 

The rules about absentee voting have never been clear to her, and she questions whether concern about the coronavirus would be a valid excuse for people with disabilities and others without adequate health care access. 

“The most vulnerable have the most hardships and the most obstacles already,” Weber said. “So if the government decides to either drag its feet or continue to make things very unclear, I think it will definitely affect voter turnout.”

Politics or voters' rights?

In a press briefing last week, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said he does not believe risk of COVID-19 should be considered a valid excuse for absentee voting.

Responding to a question from the Kansas City Star, Parson said:

“The absentee ballot is more of a political issue than it is anything. This is a Democrat-Republican issue, and that’s where this is all headed, is to a political answer and what’s driving behind this force.”

Election authorities differ on allowing COVID-19 as an excuse. Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has said his office, which is in charge of the state’s elections, will not decide on the issue and will leave it to the courts. 

Rep. Peggy McGaugh, R-Carrollton, has proposed legislation to alter Missouri’s voting procedures to allow no-excuse absentee voting, which has bipartisan support. The bill has been referred to Legislative Oversight but is not scheduled for a hearing yet.

Victoria Siddell, 28, said she is concerned about turnout among young voters if Missouri switches to a mail-in election. She said she worries that voting by mail would increase young voters' pessimism about whether their vote counts.

“They haven’t been turning out that well when there isn’t a pandemic, so I don’t know how well they would turn out when there is a pandemic,” she said.

As an election judge, Andy Ayers said even at 67 years old, he is a “youngster” among election volunteers. But now he questions whether he wants to show up at 5 a.m. and close the polls at 7 p.m., while checking in hundreds of people.

“Do I want to have contact with that number of people? Initially, I said, ‘No, this is too dangerous’… but somebody has to do this,” Ayers said. “We have to have an election.”

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake.

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