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In-person absentee voters surge at St. Louis area election offices

In-person absentee voters surge at St. Louis area election offices

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Amid worry about the coronavirus and growing interest in the presidential race, hundreds of St. Louis area residents cast early ballots Tuesday as in-person absentee voting got underway for the Nov. 3 election across Missouri.

About 700 people voted throughout the day at the St. Louis County Election Board in St. Ann, about 150 during the first two hours after the office opened at 8 a.m.

That surpassed the 300 to 400 who did so on the initial absentee-voting day in the last presidential election in 2016, said Eric Fey, the county’s Democratic director of elections.

“I think there’s enthusiasm like there is for any presidential election but there’s a heightened sense this time around,” Fey said.

Fey said a third of the people who voted in the county Tuesday already had requested an absentee ballot to be cast by mail but decided instead to vote early in person.

He said he assumed that “these were people that didn’t want to wait on the post office.” That was a reference to concerns about expected delays by the U.S. Postal Service in delivering ballots mailed in close to Election Day.

He said while there always are some people who vote in person after requesting a mail ballot, the percentage doing so Tuesday was unusually high.

County officials said lines outside the election office in St. Ann were as long as 100 people Tuesday morning.

Tuesday also was the first day that election authorities in Missouri began mailing out early ballots. Fey said the county sent out about 80,000 on Tuesday. More than 100,000 applications have been received so far in the county.

Among early voters at the county board Tuesday was Bridgette Saundersel of St. Ann. She said she voted absentee because of her homeschooling duties.

Another in-person absentee voter, Floncie Witherspoon of Jennings, said a family surgery is expected around the time of the Nov. 3 election so she was unsure if she would be able to vote that day.

And Sharon Hayes, of Berkeley, said she voted Tuesday because she will be working Election Day as a poll judge.

Election officials in St. Louis city and in St. Charles and Jefferson counties also reported larger than usual first-day absentee numbers.

Close to 300 people voted in St. Louis at city Election Board headquarters downtown.

Gary Stoff, the city’s Republican elections director, said he assumed that some people preferred to vote absentee in person because they expected less of a wait at the board office than they might encounter at their assigned polling place on Election Day.

“When we opened this morning, we already had a line going out the door, but that dissipated pretty quickly,” Stoff said. After that, he said “we’ve had a steady stream in the building lobby” but not a long line.

Jefferson County officials reported getting more than 100 absentee voters Tuesday at the county clerk’s office in Hillsboro.

“We had 25 people the first hour,” said Jeannie Goff, chief of staff for the office. On the first day for absentee voting in 2016, Goff said, the office only had 18 voters all day. In 2012, only two showed up.

Goff said she believed that worries about coronavirus was the main reason for the increase Tuesday. One reason: people are required to wear masks if they enter the building in which the clerk’s office is located but won’t have to do so at Jefferson County polling places.

County Clerk Ken Waller added that some voters he talked with Tuesday told him that “they don’t trust the mail” to get ballots in by Election Day, the deadline under Missouri law.

In St. Charles County, Elections Director Kurt Bahr said more than 760 people voted on Tuesday at his office in St. Peters.

“We’ve probably had more today than we had on a typical week” before the August primary election, he said.

Part of the reason for the surge in absentee voting is an emergency bill passed by the Legislature in May to address pandemic-spurred concerns among some voters about coming in close contact with other people at the polls.

That law, which will expire Dec. 31, created a new absentee voting option allowing any registered voter age 65 and older to qualify. Also covered are people with certain underlying health conditions. Those two groups are considered to be at particular risk of contracting the coronavirus disease.

Those are in addition to five other reasons for voting absentee previously outlined in Missouri law, such as absence from a voter’s home county on Election Day.

Absentee voters can either vote by mail or show up in person on specified days before the election at locations designated by their local election agencies. Those appearing in person don’t have to apply in advance.

Also set up just for this year is a temporary mail-in voting option for any voter, regardless of age. But critics say that process is difficult to use because verification by a notary is required before the ballot can be mailed in.

The last day to register to vote in Missouri is Oct. 7 and requests for mailed ballots must be received by local election authorities by Oct. 21.

Robert Cohen of the Post-Dispatch staff contributed to this report.

Updated at 6:45 p.m.

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