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Expanded Absentee Ballots Possible For Missouri's Elections This Year

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft says lawmakers would be amenable to passing election legislation aimed at responding to coronavirus fears — after municipal elections were moved recently from April to June.

What changes would actually be made is still under discussion. Some ideas include broadening the use of absentee ballots and implementing a vote-by-mail program.

Gov. Mike Parson moved the April 7 municipal elections to June 2 last week, calling that decision “a necessary step to help combat the spread of the virus and protect the health and safety of Missouri voters.” Numerous other states have moved primaries as a way to prevent people from gathering at polling sites and potentially spreading the virus.

Ashcroft said he’s been communicating with House and Senate leaders for several weeks, adding that those lawmakers have “been very open about calling us up and letting us know that if we present them with a package that we think is vital, and they agree with it, they will try to move it.”

Some of the ideas that have been presented include broadening the language for when people can use an absentee ballot. Currently, state law allows for people to get an absentee ballot due to “incapacity or confinement due to illness or physical disability.” That includes “a person who is primarily responsible for the physical care of a person who is incapacitated or confined due to illness or disability.”

“Do we want to see if the Legislature would agree with saying that if there is a state of emergency for some sort of infectious disease, should we broaden that up so that you can use [absentee ballots] under those circumstances?” Ashcroft said. “That's definitely on the table.”

Ashcroft said there’s been discussion about changing the process for moving election dates. He added there’s also talk about making sure there are enough staffers and facilities for in-person voting.

More than anything, Ashcroft said, “we don't have a knee-jerk reaction that causes us problems in the future.” 

“We need to make sure that we do what is necessary to make sure that the people can vote in August and November — I get that,” Ashcroft said. “Anything that we feel we need to get, we need to have it lined out perfectly with supporting evidence and bipartisan backing and people behind it.”

Vote-by-mail

Eric Fey in his office at the St. Louis County Election Board.

Since the coronavirus arrived in the U.S., there have been broader national discussions about whether states should implement vote-by-mail programs. That’s been in place for years in states including Oregon and Washington.

But Eric Fey, St. Louis County Democratic elections director, said there’s not universal agreement in Missouri that such an idea should be implemented.

“Some of the disagreement is ideological and that some people just don't agree with the concept of a mail election,” Fey said. “Some of it is practical and that many, if not most, counties in the state of Missouri would have a very difficult time pulling off a mail election. Because it's a completely different way, obviously, to run an election, and the infrastructure in many cases is not in place.”

Fey, though, said the St. Louis County Board of Elections is “very confident we can scale up that process to run a completely mail-based election.”

Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon said the state’s election jurisdictions have vastly different amounts of resources at their disposal, which in turn affects certain counties’ ability to conduct a vote-by-mail election.

“There's 116 different election authorities that have all over time been able to build their own ways of doing things. Like the way that they do their ballot preparation, the way that they send out their absentee ballots, and the way that they, you know, organize,” Lennon said. “They may not have space capability to handle a large number of ballots that come back."

Ashcroft pointed to comments from Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman about how it may be very difficult to instantly pivot to vote-by-mail without proper infrastructure. Ashcroft also said vote-by-mail doesn’t necessarily decrease the need for poll workers to handle mail-in ballots.

“It was not something we could do for April. It could be a difficult thing to even try for August,” Ashcroft said. “But if the Legislature were to change the law, if there were an agreement that that's how we should go, we would find a way to make it work. But it would be very stressful.”

Moving municipal elections

Ashcroft said he “hated” the decision to move the April 7 municipal elections to June 2, because he said he feels like “it's my job to make sure that, by God, when it's time for an election, we have one that’s run smoothly."

“The reasoning was local election officials were concerned that we would not be able to get the necessary poll workers and necessary poll locations,” Ashcroft said. “And additionally, we would not have the time to convince the people of Missouri that our procedures and policies were set up to make it safe for them to participate.”

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Some election officials have petitioned appellate judges to move the election to June 2, in case Parson’s executive order doesn’t stand up to legal scrutiny. While many local election officials supported the decision to move the municipal elections, Ashcroft concedes it wasn’t universally popular.

“There are other election authorities that said: ‘Look, based on my circumstances, I can get this done. And I can do it well and get it behind me,’” Ashcroft said. 

One of the consequences of the decision of the move is that it could give mayors or city council members who were up for election or weren’t running again more time in office. Parson’s executive order stipulates “all officers shall continue to hold office for the term thereof, and until their successors are duly elected or appointed and qualified.”

“Our municipal leadership still needs to function,” Ashcroft said. “And we didn't want every decision they made between April 7 and June 2 potentially going to court, because we think that would have hamstrung our municipalities.”

Ashcroft said emphatically that he will not be moving the dates for Missouri’s Aug. 4 primary or the Nov. 3 general election. He added those elections will be “safe for people to participate in.”

“We will have those elections,” Ashcroft said. “I might lose sleep figuring out how to do that and implementing it. But that's what I do — and that's what 116 local election authorities across the state do.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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