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Published — October 22, 2020

Missouri made it extra hard to vote by mail

The state requires mail-in voters to find a notary and limits how they can return filled-out ballots.

Introduction

Missouri expanded mail-in voting during the pandemic while making it nearly impossible for people to vote this way. 

People who want to avoid going to the polls can request a mail-in ballot, but it must be requested in person or by mail. Under the new law, most voters must also have their ballot signatures notarized, and they can only return completed ballots by U.S. mail, not in person. If mail is delayed and ballots arrive after 7 p.m. on Election Day, they won’t be counted.

These hurdles have triggered multiple lawsuits.

American Women, a national voter education group, sued Missouri over these rules in August, arguing that they are bewildering and “irrational.”

“These restrictions all but assure that the thousands of Missourians who seek to vote by mail this fall will face a confusing and burdensome regime that will result in widespread, unavoidable, and unconstitutional chaos and disenfranchisement,” the group wrote in its complaint.

A month later, a coalition of civil rights groups also sued the state over these rules. The Organization for Black Struggle and other civic groups said the rules for mail-in voting are “burdensome and unjustified.”

It’s unclear if the lawsuits will be resolved before Election Day. The first case has gone to trial. In the second case, a federal judge decided this month that the mail-in voting rules were unconstitutional and ordered Missouri officials to let all remote voters return their ballots by mail, in person or through a relative. The order is on hold while Missouri officials appeal the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Here are two other issues that risk disenfranchising voters in Missouri:

Ballot collection ban

Missouri passed a law in June that created a new type of remote voting: mail-in. This category is only available in 2020 because of the pandemic, and voters don’t need an excuse to vote by mail. The process requires a notary (in most cases) and mandates voters return their ballot by U.S. mail. 

Absentee voting is available every election. Voters must have a reason to cast an absentee ballot, such as being out of town on Election Day. Unlike mail-in voters, absentee voters can turn in their ballots to the local elections office. Yet Missouri is one of several states that doesn’t let community groups or friends deliver a voter’s absentee ballot — only a voter’s close relatives can.

Voting rights advocates say this ban on third-party ballot collection disproportionately harms poor, rural and minority voters, who may have limited access to postal services and public transportation. 

Ballot rejection

Missouri allows election officials to reject absentee and mail-in ballots for minor errors, without giving voters a chance to correct them.

For example, a voter may forget to check a box indicating that their voter registration address is the same as their mailing address. 

“Eligible voters can have their ballot rejected without notice … and may never learn their vote was not counted,” wrote the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri in September.

These rules have already disenfranchised thousands of voters in the state.

In the August primary election, St. Louis County rejected 2,391 ballots, according to one of the lawsuits. Of that group, 1,538 were rejected because a voter made a mistake or left out information on the ballot envelope.

While some counties try to alert voters when they make a mistake, it is not required. 

Read more in Money and Democracy

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