Missouri’s primary election is three weeks away and thanks to a temporary law enacted this year, any Missourian who wants to vote by mail can do so legally for the first time without an excuse.
The deadline to request an absentee or mail-in ballot is Wednesday. July 22.
But there’s a catch: Unless you have coronavirus or belong to an at-risk population, you still need to get your ballot notarized before mailing it back.
Rick Watson, Henry County Clerk and president of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, said by requiring voters to seek out a notary, the new option will do little to soothe concerns of those who fear contracting the virus.
“That voter might as well go to the polls,” he said.
The ACLU of Missouri agrees, arguing in a still ongoing lawsuit that voters should not have to put their health at risk to satisfy the notary requirement.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and the GOP-led Legislature have flatly rejected calls for more lenient mail-in voting options, arguing that eliminating the notary requirement could lead to voter fraud.
“What we are against, and what President Trump is against, is voting absentee without a reason and without a signature verification,” Parson said when he signed the legislation into law.
The Legislature is not going to revisit the issue anytime soon, and it’s unlikely the ACLU’s lawsuit will be resolved before the August primary.
So what do you need to know in order to cast your ballot by mail? Here are a few details.
Who can vote by mail?
Missouri has long allowed for absentee ballots to be cast by mail, but only with a valid excuse.
Most of those excuses — volunteering as an election worker, incarceration, or simply being absent from your jurisdiction on election day — require ballots to be notarized before they are mailed in.
Notarization is not required if the voter is unable to cast a ballot in person because they are confined due to illness.
Election officials around the state interpreted that provision differently, with some arguing that fear of catching or spreading COVID-19 qualifies as a valid excuse that would not require notarization.
Watson said the question of whether local authorities should accept fear of COVID-19 as a valid excuse to cast a non-notarized absentee ballot is “still out for debate.”
Several large Missouri counties reported a surge in absentee ballots cast for the June 2 local elections, an increase officials attribute to safety concerns caused by the pandemic.
The temporary law, which expires after this year, allows anyone to vote by mail without an excuse if they get their ballot notarized.
If you fall into specific at-risk categories — over 65 years old, live in a long-term care facility, have a heart or lung condition, are immunocompromised, have diabetes or chronic kidney disease — the notary requirement is waived.
Absentee ballots may be returned to the local election authority in person or by mail, and must be received in the election office by the close of the election, 7 p.m. on Aug. 4.
Where do I find a notary?
The point of the notarization requirement is to ensure the person who requests the ballot is the same person who submitted it.
State law forbids notaries from charging a fee to notarize an absentee ballot.
However, under the legislation signed by Parson this year, notaries are not prohibited from charging for a mail-in ballot.
That means if you don’t fall under one of the valid excuses to vote absentee or into an at-risk group, you can be charged a fee to notarize your ballot.
The Secretary of State’s office has compiled a list of organizations and individuals who are volunteering to provide both services free. The list of volunteer notaries can be found on the secretary of state’s website: https://www.sos.mo.gov/elections/MailinNotary
Is it safe to vote in person?Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft recently toured the state to assure voters that elected officials at every level of government are working to ensure casting a ballot in person is safe and secure.
For those who are still concerned, curbside voting is also available, Ashcroft’s office said, urging voters to call their local election authority for details.
Polling places are being prepared to provide space between voters and poll workers, and providing other safeguards, like hand sanitizer, face masks and face shields for poll workers.
“My office has distributed $4.5 million in federal and state funds and provided (election authorities) with sanitizer, floor distancing strips, face masks, face shields and other items to assist with creating a safe voting environment,” Ashcroft said.
Voters can also request an absentee ballot to drop it off in person to avoid crowds on Election Day.
Watson said that is his preference because the cost to local election authorities associated with mail-in voting — envelopes, postage, and personnel to verify signatures on envelopes and to process ballots — is picked up by county governments.
A big spike in mail-in voting could be a hit on local budgets.
“We have been notified that Missouri will not be paying for any of the August or November Elections due to their budget shortfalls,” Watson said, later adding that the additional costs are eliminated “if the voter were to absentee vote in-person at the courthouse or voting center.’’