Missouri lawmakers are considering plans to allow everyone to vote by mail this year amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The House approved legislation last week aimed at giving all registered voters the option to cast mail-in ballots in this year’s August and November elections. The bill now heads to the Senate for a final vote.
Currently, Missouri only lets people mail in ballots if they can cite one of six specific absentee excuses, such as illness or travel away from home on election day.
But leading county clerks, including Greene County’s Shane Schoeller, asked lawmakers to do something to cover everyone with the coronavirus still at large.
Rep. Dan Shaul, R-Imperial, said the measure he sponsored would do just that.
"If you believe that people should be able to do an absentee mail-in ballot (this year), this is a simple yes vote," he said.
Several Democrats objected to that description, pointing out Shaul also included a provision reviving the state’s voter ID law and new rules designed to cut down on the number filed each year.
“I think it’s blatantly obvious that we’re sneaking a lot of stuff into this bill,” Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis, said. “These bills are the Antichrist of democracy.”
Democrats also complained that people requesting what are effectively absentee ballots under a sort of pandemic excuse would still have to get their ballots notarized before submitting them, which Republicans claimed would prevent fraud.
Gov. Mike Parson signed an executive order last month allowing notaries to do their work electronically, but only a small fraction have registered to do so so far.
“That’s not going to make it any more convenient for people to vote in this time of the pandemic,” Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, said earlier this week.
Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said Shaul’s plan also fell short by requiring voters to request ballots either in-person or by mail. Voters can usually request absentee ballots by email and fax as well.
"Are you kidding me?” Merideth asked. “The idea that we would make voters request this in person or by mail in 2020 sounds to me like we are making it harder for them to do it.”
County clerks had asked lawmakers to make it easier to do online requests and several other things in recent weeks, but those ideas had been shot down the day before. When Rep. Peggy McGaugh, R-Carrollton, proposed them Wednesday, Shaul accused her of trying to “sneak” controversial ideas through the chamber, prompting jeers from Democrats.
If Shaul’s legislation is passed by the Senate before the session ends, Missouri would join a number of other states encouraging mail-in voting during the pandemic.
The plan won’t cover the June 2 municipal elections rescheduled from April 7, though those elections generally draw lower turnout than other contests.
The legislative action also comes as advocates for expanding absentee voting are suing the state to force the issue.
Civil rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri contend that the existing excuse for incapacity or confinement due to illness should apply to anyone sheltering in place due to the pandemic.
No decision had been rendered in the case as of Thursday afternoon, according to online court records.
Advocates had also urged Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft to simply declare that everyone could vote absentee due to the pandemic.
But Ashcroft, a Republican, said such action would be illegal.
The legislation is an amendment to Senate Bill 631.