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Judge blocks attempt to streamline mail-in voting in Missouri

Judge blocks attempt to streamline mail-in voting in Missouri

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St. Louis County prepares for 2020 Missouri primary

Kathy Meyer and Mike Malan alphabetize mail-in ballots that were received at the St. Louis County Board of Elections in St. Ann on Monday, August 3, 2020. Meyer said volunteers have spent four days sorting through tens of thousands of ballots, preparing them to be scanned. (Chris Kohley, ckohley@post-dispatch.com)

JEFFERSON CITY — A Cole County judge turned back an effort Thursday seeking to streamline the mail-in voting process in Missouri.

In a 35-page decision, Circuit Judge Jon Beetem dismissed claims by the League of Women Voters and the NAACP that the various steps required to vote by mail during a pandemic posed unconstitutional health risks.

Under current state law, Missouri voters this year in specific at-risk categories for contracting or transmitting COVID-19 or voters who have contracted the disease may vote via absentee ballot by mail.

The ballot envelope, however, would have to be notarized, unless someone is incapacitated or confined because of illness or disability, or if someone is a caregiver for a person in those circumstances.

People at risk for COVID-19 or who already have contracted the coronavirus that causes it also do not need to have their ballot notarized.

The Legislature also approved for 2020 a provision for mail-in ballots, allowing healthy voters under age 65 to request a mail-in ballot and vote without providing an excuse. But the ballot envelope must be signed in the presence of a notary public, and the ballot must be returned by Election Day via the U.S. Postal Service.

In its lawsuit, the league said the notary requirement is cumbersome and should be eliminated.

But Beetem said there was little evidence presented by experts that supported that fear.

He said the expert used by the league during the trial “concedes that social distancing and other prudent precautions are consistently effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and Plaintiffs provided no evidence of any instance of transmission of COVID-19 during a notarization.”

In addition, Beetem said ballot envelopes for absentee and mail-in votes have already been printed and made available.

“Invalidating the notarization requirement, and re-printing thousands of ballot envelopes, during a process that is already underway threatens to create confusion among voters and local election authorities, and it would subject Missouri voters to different legal standards during the same election, depending on when they cast their absentee or mail-in ballot,” the judge wrote.

Evelyn Maddox, president of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, said the decision was disappointing.

“The League of Women Voters believes many Missouri voters may be disenfranchised because the state says they must appear in person before a notary to have a mail-in ballot counted. League members across the state hope the Missouri Supreme Court will see the error of this decision and ensure that all Missouri voters have the right to safely cast a ballot during this pandemic,” she said.

The case is among a trio of lawsuits that seek to eliminate the notary requirement.

A second case in Cole County is set to go to trial on Oct. 6 in Circuit Judge Daniel Green’s courtroom. The lawsuit, filed by the Washington, D.C.-based American Women advocacy organization, also seeks to ensure that ballots are counted even if mail service delays cause them to be delivered after the polls close.

The third case is pending in federal court, where a number of organizations also are calling for a judge to make the mail-in voting process easier.

The groups include the Organization for Black Struggle, Missouri Faith Voices, the St. Louis and Greater Kansas City Chapters of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and the National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis Section.

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