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Mask mandate at polls irks Ellisville man who walks away instead of voting

Mask mandate at polls irks Ellisville man who walks away instead of voting

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ELLISVILLE — Steve Fehr said he tried to vote in Missouri’s primary Tuesday morning but ended up leaving without casting his ballot because he refused to wear a mask. His experience at the Daniel Boone Branch of the St. Louis County library amounted to voter suppression, he asserts.

Fehr, a 62-year-old Ellisville resident who owns a software company, said he arrived shortly before polls opened at 6 a.m. and waited in line with proper social distancing. Once the doors opened, he went inside and presented his ID and signed in. But poll workers soon told him he couldn’t vote without a mask and offered him one.

“I’m viscerally opposed to this whole mask-wearing thing,” he said. “Everyone’s acquiescence to wearing a mask ... has just gone completely categorically insane.”

St. Louis County had announced it would be enforcing its indoor mask rule during Election Day and hired monitors to hand out masks at the polls. Fehr, meanwhile, said he had heard that St. Louis city would be allowing people to vote even without a mask, and he hoped the county “would turn a blind eye” to him and let him do it anyway.

But they didn’t. Fehr said polling officials gave him options. They said he could drive to St. Ann to vote outside without a mask. He didn’t think he should have to drive that far. They offered to let him vote from his car and then election authorities would take his ballot inside to the box for him, but he declined that because he couldn’t be assured it would get there.

“They didn’t give me what I considered an acceptable option,” he said. Fehr insists he thought the county’s rule called for masks only when social distancing wasn’t possible, and he said he was trying to stay six feet from anyone indoors.

He is irritated that he stood inside for 35 minutes, unmasked, while the workers tried to figure out how to handle his complaint. He said some people in line were wearing masks but with their noses uncovered. 

“I’m not a science denier. I know this has been deadly,” he said of COVID-19. “But I think, quite frankly, it is a bit overblown.”

He also is worried that, after he signed for his ballot but didn't use it, someone else could vote in his name. Fehr said he's never missed voting in an election, and the main thing that brought him to the polls Tuesday was his opposition to the expansion of Medicaid.

Three hours into the voting day Tuesday, Fehr’s case appears to be the only one of its kind in St. Louis County, said Eric Fey, Democratic director of elections for St. Louis County.

“It’s the only case I have heard about of someone absolutely refusing a mask and then refusing to vote curbside,” Fey said.

He said there have been a few people who have voted curbside and then others were coming to the main office in St. Ann to vote outside.

“Things are looking fine to us so far,” he said.

In St. Louis city, the first three hours of voting were going well, said Gary Stoff, Republican director of elections in St. Louis. He said he hadn’t heard from poll workers of any issues regarding masks.

The only trouble Stoff heard about was unrelated to masks. At Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, at 1901 North Kingshighway, someone forgot to unlock the school for voting. That delayed things about an hour until the building was unlocked, he said. During the wait, poll workers were starting to have people vote curbside, Stoff said.

Concerns about the virus appear to have driven a record number of people to cast absentee ballots in St. Louis County, said county election director Eric Fey. Election officials said coronavirus concerns also led to a somewhat larger number of cancellations and no-shows among poll workers in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, though substitutes were dispatched to fill the gaps.

Medicaid in the balance

Voters are deciding whether to expand Medicaid health care eligibility to thousands more low-income adults. They also are picking party candidates for governor, U.S. Congress, the state Legislature and various county offices.

Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature has repeatedly rejected Medicaid expansion proposals over the past decade, prompting supporters to turn to the initiative process.

Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Utah have all expanded Medicaid through ballot questions following inaction by state lawmakers, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. Oklahoma became the 37th state to expand eligibility for Medicaid under the federal law last month.

Missouri’s Medicaid program currently does not cover most adults without children, and its income eligibility threshold for parents is one of the lowest in the nation at about one-fifth of the poverty level.

The ballot proposal would expand eligibility under the terms of the 2010 federal health care law signed by President Barack Obama. That law provides a higher-than-usual federal funding share for states that expand Medicaid coverage to adults earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level, about $17,600 for an individual or $30,000 for a family of three.

Democratic Auditor Nicole Galloway's office estimated that expanding Medicaid could cost the state at least $200 million or save as much as $1 billion annually by 2026. Republican opponents cite the potential costs as reason to oppose the ballot initiative.

"Amendment 2 will be a knockout blow to the state budget as more services will be cut or eliminated to pay for the health care of able-bodied adults,” state House Budget Chairman Cody Smith said.

By proposing a constitutional amendment instead of a new law, Missouri supporters have ensured that lawmakers will be unable to change it without going back to voters.

Backers include the Missouri Hospital Association and groups with particular sway over Republicans, such as the Missouri Catholic Conference and Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who opposes Medicaid expansion and is up for election this year, in May moved the vote on the proposal up from the Nov. 3 general election to Tuesday's primary. Parson said the earlier vote will give the state more time to financially prepare for Medicaid expansion, if it passes. He said his decision was not about politics.

Galloway is trying to unseat Parson. Her campaign has said Parson switched the day of the vote on Medicaid because fewer people typically vote in August compared to November, possibly giving opponents a better chance of defeating the measure.

37% turnout predicted

Voter turnout during the 2016 presidential general election in Missouri was almost three times higher than turnout for that year's August primary. Even in 2018, a record year for turnout during a primary, roughly 1 million more voters turned up at the polls in November compared to August.

Local election authorities have projected a statewide voter turnout of nearly 37% Tuesday.

Voters on Tuesday also will pick the Republican and Democratic candidates for Congress, the Missouri governor's seat and other statewide offices, and state legislative seats.

Parson and Galloway have primary opponents, but both are expected to be nominated by their respective political parties.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, whose job performance has been lauded by some civil rights activists and criticized by President Donald Trump and other leading Republicans, faces a challenge from former homicide prosecutor Mary Pat Carl.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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