Lawmakers say vote-by-mail bill will keep voters safe and votes secure. Will it do either?
On the final day of session last month, Missouri's Republican-controlled legislature approved plans to allow anyone to cast a mail-in ballot this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It wasn't easy. Some Republicans worried the bill would allow for fraud. Some Democrats worried it wouldn't do enough to keep people safe.
Rep. Dan Shaul, R-Imperial, and Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, the sponsors of the plan, ultimately won bipartisan support promising the best of both worlds.
“It will give everyone the opportunity to cast a mail-in ballot if they choose and it will ensure that voter fraud will not increase because of it,” Shaul said in an interview.
But it's not clear the bill does either of those things particularly well.
Local election officials and national elections experts pointed out the law will still require many people to leave home to vote, even if virus cases spike again in the fall as health experts predict. They also said it would offer little real protection against fraud, which available data suggests isn't really a problem.
To be sure, the bill Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed into law Thursday allows every voter to mail in their ballot for the August and November elections.
But it also requires anyone who isn't “confined due to illness or disability” or at high risk for getting very sick from the coronavirus to get their ballots notarized, and right now, that can only be done in person, according to the Secretary of State's office.
Experts and election officials said that meant voters could still end up deciding between risking their health and voting.
“It didn't solve the problem for everyone that has this fear factor of going out and getting sick,” said Henry County Clerk Rick Watson, a Republican who currently leads the state's association of local election officials.
Shaul and Hegeman, the Republicans sponsors of the plan, defended the notary requirement as a “safeguard” against fraud that already applies to people requesting absentee ballots for reasons other than sickness or disability.
But local officials and experts around the country said that was a shaky defense for multiple reasons.
Paul Gronke, a political scientist at Reed College in Oregon who studies elections and advises governments on best practices, said the first reason is that mail-in voter fraud is very rare, even in states like his where everyone votes by mail.
“We've had numerous studies from both sides of the aisle trying to unearth cases of voter fraud and we just have not found much,” he said. “In 2012, they found 6, and 4 were what we call the 'Junior problem,' where a parent and their child have the same name and the 'junior' gets the ballot meant for the 'senior'.
Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine, pointed the News-Leader to a column he wrote in the Washington Post when asked about the potential for fraud.
In it, he pointed to a database assembled by the nonprofit news project News 21 that found just 491 cases of absentee fraud nationwide from 2000 and 2012, when “literally billions of votes” were cast.
The five states that vote entirely by mail, which include conservative Utah, report similarly low levels of fraud.
“So do you really want individuals to make a choice between their safety and the health and safety of those around them and their right to vote, all because of a concern about fraud that there really just isn't evidence for?” Gronke asked.
Shaul said even one case is evidence of a problem, though.
“I don't think anyone should have their vote get devalued like that,” he said. “Any amount of fraud at any level is unacceptable.”
Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller, a Republican, allowed that Shaul had a point, saying that while a few votes might not change a big federal election, it could make a difference in a tight state House race or a local government contest.
But he said lawmakers had a "false sense of confidence" in the notary requirement's ability to stop such fraud.
Schoeller pointed out that becoming a notary requires little more than registering to vote, doing some online training and buying a bond for under $100, and he said he'd seen notaries caught in other states harvesting ballots for political parties.
“I'm not saying there's not good notaries,” he said. “But there's nothing in there to stop people who might want to use it improperly, and I think that is where the gaping hole is.”
Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon, a Democrat, added that local election authorities would be hard-pressed to catch a voter trying to avoid the notary requirement by claiming they're sick or that they fit in one of the categories created by the new law for people at high risk for the coronavirus.
“That's not something that we would be checking,” she said. “We can't ask for a doctor's note.”
Schoeller and Watson, the Republican clerks from Greene and Henry counties, confirmed that.
“We don't have the capacity or the authority to make people prove that they're sick,” Watson said, adding that while technically anyone lying could be prosecuted, he wasn't sure how many prosecutors would really want to go after someone trying to stay safe.
Schoeller said a better approach would be to tighten up the qualification process for notaries and pay for software to help clerks with their own review process that matches signatures on every mailed-in votes against voter registration files, not just those in certain categories.
Once officials verify that a ballot came from the right address, bipartisan teams of election judges compare signatures on ballot envelopes to signatures in voters' registration files. Schoeller said money for verification software could help his office be more efficient and accurate.
Shaul and Hegeman, the Republican sponsors of the new law, mostly shrugged off the concerns.
Both pointed out notaries caught helping with fraud could face charges and said that they had to have some trust in voters to be honest about their situations when they request their ballots.
“Is it a perfect piece of legislation?” Hegeman asked rhetorically. “I can't say that. But with the timeline we had, it was our best effort to address the current situation with the COVID-19 (pandemic) with the information we had at the time.”
Even those with critical comments agreed with him there.
Schoeller said the part of the bill letting people at high risk for the coronavirus vote from home was certainly a weight off his shoulders.
"I think most election authorities can now administer the election a lot more effectively with that question," he said.
Shaul added that there would always be second-guessing, especially from Democrats who wanted the same treatment for all voters, which the county clerks association also advocated.
“We can always come up with what-ifs and what-abouts and what-happens-ifs and we can't possibly address all of those,” Shaul said.
But Rep. Deb Lavender, one of the Democrats critical of the bill, said lawmakers could have erred on the side of making it easier for people to vote.
“This stuff about fraud is what-ifs and what-abouts, too," she said. “And I worry much more about the disenfranchisement of voters than fraud.”
The legislation is Senate Bill 631.