Missouri Supreme Court considers voting during pandemic
COLUMBIA — Civil rights groups on Monday asked the Missouri Supreme Court to allow all Missourians to vote absentee without a notary because of the coronavirus.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, the Missouri NAACP and other advocacy groups made their case about the safety of in-person voting before the Supreme Court, which held arguments remotely over concerns about spreading COVID-19. A circuit court judge dismissed the groups' lawsuit last month.
Lawyer Sophia Lin Lakin told Supreme Court judges that people who vote in person now must choose between voting and going against public health guidance to social distance. She said that's a severe burden on the right to vote.
There are some exceptions in place this year to make it easier to vote absentee.
Republican Gov. Mike Parson earlier this month signed a bill to allow people who are the most at risk from the coronavirus — those age 65 and older, living in a long-term care facility or with certain existing health problems — to vote absentee without needing to have their ballot notarized. Anyone else could cast a mail-in ballot but would need to get it notarized.
But the mail-in ballot option still puts people at risk, Lakin said.
"Requiring a person to appear before a notary during this public health crisis jeopardizes their health and the health of their families and fellow citizens, including the notaries," Lakin said.
Parson also this month extended an executive order through Aug. 28 that waived a requirement that people show up in person to get documents notarized. That would apply through the August primary but not November's general election.
Lakin said that doesn't go far enough. She said it's unclear how virtual notarization would work and instead asked judges to allow Missourians worried about catching or spreading COVID-19 to vote by mail using the state's illness excuse to get an absentee ballot.
"The issue here is, how does an individual actually obtain a notarized signature on an absentee ballot?" she told judges. "As a practical matter, I'm not entirely sure how that would occur."
Some local election authorities interpret current law as allowing absentee voting without notarization for anyone worried about the spread of coronavirus, but state law is not clear on whether the state's illness excuse to get an absentee ballot covers otherwise healthy people who are worried about the pandemic.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has not issued guidance to local clerks on how to interpret the law, according to court documents.
Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer is defending the current voting rules. He told judges that it's up to the Legislature, not the court, to clarify or change current voting rules.
"Under Missouri law and the Missouri Constitution, discretion to adopt a reasonable and robust accommodation for voters who have these very reasonable fears lies with the Legislature," he said.
Judges did not indicate when they might rule.