League of Women Voters, NAACP file lawsuit to expand absentee voting during coronavirus

Voters+check+in+to+cast+their+ballots+at+the+Sunset+Hills+Community+Center+during+the+April+2019+election.

Photo by Erin Achenbach

Voters check in to cast their ballots at the Sunset Hills Community Center during the April 2019 election.

The Missouri chapters of the League of Women Voters and the NAACP joined together to file a lawsuit Friday hoping to expand absentee voting in the state due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Most states allow any voter to vote absentee if they want, but Missouri law only allows absentee voting for limited reasons, including illness and absence from the county. Some counties like St. Louis County have added early voting as a feature of elections, but legally voters can only early vote if they qualify for absentee voting. Some other states allow absentee voting for any reason.

The secretary of state has not issued guidelines to election authorities that voters who are concerned about the COVID-19 virus can use that excuse. The April municipal and school board election has been pushed to June 2 due to concerns about the coronavirus, and two other major elections are coming up: the August primary election and the November general election. 

To protect the right to vote in 2020, the League of Women Voters of Missouri, the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP and several individual voters filed a lawsuit against the state in Cole County Friday that seeks a declaratory judgment that physical distancing and fear of contracting COVID-19 are valid reasons to request an absentee ballot in Missouri. The organizations and residents are represented by the ACLU of Missouri in the suit. Not allowing no-excuse absentee voting would violate the right to vote guaranteed under the Missouri Constitution, the groups argued. 

The lawsuit seeks a ruling from the court clarifying that all eligible voters who are confining themselves to avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19 may invoke the confinement-due-to-illness reason for absentee voting “in order to prevent large-scale disenfranchisement and to secure public health,” the ACLU said.

Requiring voters to be physically present at their traditional polling places during the COVID-19 pandemic — where they will be congregating and waiting in line with others in order to vote — is contrary to the advice of public health experts and puts people’s health at risk, the ACLU argued.

“No one should be forced to choose between staying safe and voting,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “Expanding absentee ballot access to all registered voters during the pandemic is a common-sense solution that protects people’s health and their right to vote.”

St. Louis County has already mailed absentee ballot applications to voters over 60 since they are at higher risk of a severe reaction to the virus, but other election authorities in the state are not proactively enabling absentee voting in 2020.

The suit also seeks injunctive relief preventing local election officials from refusing such ballots or requiring them to be notarized.

“Missouri must expand and protect access to the ballot in these unprecedented times,” LWVMO President Evelyn Maddox said in a news release. “We want any Missouri voter who is social distancing in compliance with CDC guidelines to be able to request an absentee ballot in 2020 and return it without a notary seal.”

“Inconsistencies between voting jurisdictions violate the equal protection clause,” says Denise Lieberman, general counsel for the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition. “Fear of contracting the coronavirus should be a valid reason to request an absentee ballot. Since election authorities can verify voter signatures, they should be told to accept all ballots without a notary seal this year. Absentee voting either by mail or in person will reduce the crowds at polling places and make them safer for other voters in 2020 elections.”

The state has a new electronic notary system, but Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office indicates that it won’t work for absentee ballots.

In a similar lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Austin Area, a federal court judge ruled on April 16 that voters there may cite COVID-19 as a disability requirement in mail-in ballot request forms.

Maddox said League members will continue to advocate for other election reforms in 2020.

“No excuse, no notary absentee voting is the best way to ensure that Missouri voters can safely participate in 2020 elections and protect public health,” she said. “The state must also ensure a safe voting environment for poll workers and in-person voters.”

The League of Women Voters of Missouri is a nonpartisan political organization with a mission to educate and empower voters. League volunteers register thousands of voters each election cycle.

The League’s online guide for Missouri’s June 2 municipal elections is available at VOTE411.org. The Call’s election questionnaires, guides and full coverage of the upcoming election is available at https://callnewspapers.com/category/election/.

Call Newspapers is co-sponsoring a candidate forum in May with the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis.