Denise Lieberman: Leaders must act now to protect voters during this pandemic

Denise Lieberman: Leaders must act now to protect voters during this pandemic

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No one should have to choose between their right to vote and their health. There are steps we can take to ensure access to the ballot for Missouri voters in 2020, but the time for decisive action is now. Missouri lawmakers returned to session last week. They must appropriate funds to scale up increased mail-in voting and other measures. And Missouri’s chief elections official must offer clear direction on the path forward and ensure local election authorities have the resources they need to administer what will certainly be the most unusual and challenging elections in our lifetimes.

The Missouri Voter Protection Coalition has outlined the measures Missouri must take to ensure voting in the wake of the pandemic. These measures reflect recommendations of national voting rights experts like me with focus on the particulars of Missouri’s election practices. They’ve been endorsed by some 50 organizations in Missouri. Needed measures for voting in Missouri in this pandemic include several critical pieces: expanded absentee voting by mail, bolstering online voter registration, polling place accommodations and robust voter assistance and education.

Missouri must prepare for unprecedented voting by mail. All Missouri voters who need to should be able to cast an absentee ballot by mail — our current structure makes that challenging. Missouri should join with 33 other states plus the District of Columbia in not requiring an excuse to vote absentee by mail. Lawmakers can institute this change, as can Gov. Mike Parson, on an emergency basis for this year. Five other states that require excuses for absentee voting have waived those excuses for upcoming elections this year because of the coronavirus.

At minimum, with social distancing essential, the pandemic should constitute a valid excuse for Missouri voters to cast absentee ballots, whether they show signs of the disease or not. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has left the decision up to local election officials on whether social distancing due to fear of the virus is an acceptable reason to vote absentee, leading to varying results. For example, election officials in Jackson County recently said they will not count fear of coronavirus as a reason to vote absentee, while St. Louis County will. Secretary Ashcroft, as the state’s chief elections official, should issue guidance that any Missouri voter can vote absentee due to the coronavirus and direct local election authorities to accept such ballots without a notary seal.

Scaling up would be expensive. Lawmakers must appropriate needed funds to cover costs of printing, postage, ballot tracking, back-end security, verification and ballot tabulation. And they need rules and guidance on that back-end infrastructure from the state’s chief elections official. The few states that vote mostly by mail took years to scale up; we won’t have that kind of time.

Because voting by mail relies on accurate and timely updated voter rolls, the Secretary of State must take steps to bolster the state’s online voter registration portal to make it easier for voters to register and update their information online.

The state won’t be able to rely solely on absentee voting, so other provisions are needed to ensure broader in-person advance absentee voting to reduce crowds on Election Day, and polling place modifications consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Voters must get advance notice of polling place changes. Election officials must offer robust voter education to help voters through these changes and must take steps to affirmatively combat misinformation.

Despite the challenges presented by this pandemic, our democracy must survive, and the 2020 elections must go on. The measures the coalition has outlined would ensure that Missouri voters can cast a ballot, but only if officials step into leadership now and temporarily put aside their political differences to protect Missouri voters.

Denise Lieberman, a Missouri lawyer, is coordinator of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, a nonpartisan statewide network of voter advocates. She is a nationally recognized voting rights expert, most recently serving as director of Power & Democracy for Advancement Project National Office. She serves as faculty director of the Voter Access and Engagement Initiative at Washington University in St. Louis.

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