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Due To COVID Fears, Civil Rights Groups Urge Missouri Supreme Court To Allow Absentee Voting

Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3 file photo
Voters cast ballots at a polling place in Kansas City, Missouri, during midterm elections in 2018.

The NAACP and League of Women Voters argue that no one should be forced to risk their health and leave their home to vote during the pandemic.

The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Monday on whether all eligible Missouri voters should be allowed to cast absentee ballots without having to get them notarized amid fears caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Civil rights groups contend a bill signed by Gov. Mike Parson on June 4 making it easier to vote absentee doesn’t go far enough. That bill allows voters with health conditions that put them at risk of getting COVID-19 to cast an absentee ballot without notarization.

The NAACP and League of Women Voters say that no one should be forced to risk their health and leave their home to vote during the pandemic.

Sophia Lin Lakin, an attorney for the groups, told the court that both Parson and Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft have acknowledged that “requiring a person to appear before a notary during this public health crisis jeopardizes their health and the health of their families and fellow citizens, including the notaries.”

“The remaining issue for this court then is whether forcing voters to undertake this risk to health and life in order to vote by having to come into close contact with a notary to vote by mail on the one hand, or by having to show up at a crowded polling location to cast a ballot in person on the other, is contrary to state law and the state constitution,” Lakin said.

As of Sunday, Missouri had reported 15,585 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 872 deaths.

At issue is Missouri’s law permitting absentee voting only if voters provide an excuse for why they can’t vote in person. The bill enacted on June 4 makes it clear that people deemed at risk of contracting COVID-19 can vote absentee without getting their ballots notarized.

But the state argues that it does not allow people who merely fear getting ill to vote absentee without notarization.

“The problem with this argument is that the phrase ‘fear of’ is not in the statute and therefore the court would have to engraft language in the statue that is not really there,” Missouri Solicitor General D. John Sauer told the court.

The NAACP and League of Women Voters appealed to the Supreme Court after a Cole County judge last month dismissed their lawsuit.

Circuit Judge Jon Beetem found the groups were asking for a “radical and permanent transformation of Missouri voting practices without the authorization of the Legislature.”

“The court takes very seriously the health concerns regarding the Covid-19 pandemic that plaintiffs allege in their petition, but the relief plaintiffs seek is not limited to Covid-19 and goes far beyond the health concerns they raise,” Beetem ruled.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling before Aug. 4, when statewide primary elections are scheduled to be held.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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