On Wednesday, I did something I’ve never done before.
I requested an absentee ballot for the Aug. 4 primary.
Because I have an underlying asthmatic condition, I’ll be able to fill out my ballot, put it in the mail, and not have to bother with the hassle of a notary, or stand in line among the masked and unmasked on election day. It provides me a bit of comfort amid the coronavirus pandemic.
That comfort comes as the result of months of lobbying and public awareness by groups like the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union and the state conference of the NAACP, who amid the coronavirus pandemic urged public officials in Missouri, particularly Gov. Mike Parson and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, both Republicans, to make absentee or mail-in voting widely available to protect voters from COVID-19.
Both Parson and Ashcroft were slow to act, or even pretend like it was an issue, following the lead of President Donald Trump, who despite having voted by mail multiple times himself, sought to falsely claim that such voting isn’t safe.
In May, a group of rabbis sought to elevate the issue, by declaring that their Jewish believers had a religious obligation to protect their lives and the lives of others while exercising their constitutional right to vote.
“Our Jewish tradition values human life above virtually all else,” wrote the 35 Jewish leaders. “As the pandemic continues, our Jewish teachings, laws and traditions require us to stay home except in situations where leaving the home is essential to preserving life. … We … believe therefore that it is a deeply held religious belief to remain home on days in which elections are held and that such a belief qualifies one under the Missouri law to vote in any regional, state, or federal elections via absentee ballot.”
Following the issuance of the letter, a Christian cleric, the Rev. David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary, issued his own letter affirming the teaching.
It wasn’t enough to move the Missouri Legislature to make widespread mail-in voting available in the state, as has happened in other states. While the Legislature passed a law adding some extra reasons to apply for absentee voting, many of them, such as the religious exemption, still require a voter to leave their house and seek a notary to approve the ballot.
So the Jewish leaders are stepping up again.
The community relations council and the National Council of Jewish Women are partnering with the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition to recruit notaries and station them at public libraries throughout St. Louis leading up to the Aug. 4 election. The groups plan to repeat the action in November.
In most city and county library branches, the groups plan to have notaries available for drive-by approval of absentee ballots at no charge. (To find available times or volunteer as a notary, email email@example.com). Currently, the effort has 80 volunteers ready to notarize ballots at 12 library branches.
For Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the reluctance of Missouri lawmakers to more fully expand mail-in voting options is a head-scratcher.
“It’s fascinating the ways in which access to voting has become so politicized,” she says. “We shouldn’t be afraid of more people voting.”
Indeed, five states, all in the western part of the country, have full mail-in voting options for their residents. Thirty-four states have no-excuse absentee voting. Even with the recent legislative change, Missouri has some of the most restrictive voting practices in the country.
To reach what end?
A Stanford study issued earlier this year found that mail-in voting achieves no partisan advantage for Democrats or Republicans. But it does increase voting overall.
So will this: The St. Louis County Board of Elections this week voted to allow St. Louis County voters to cast their vote at any of the county’s 200 polling places. That will make it easier for people who leave early for work, or get home late, to be able to vote near their employer, or where they pick up their children from day care, or to just avoid a long line at one polling place and vote at one that is less busy.
“As Americans, we hold the values of democracy at our core,” Neiss says. “No one should be forced to choose between their right to vote and their health and personal safety.”