Judge stays order in Missouri voting lawsuit, awaiting appeals

The Missouri secretary of state has appealed a judge's ruling in a federal lawsuit over the state's voting laws, and the judge agreed to a temporary restraining order of his ruling as the appeals process plays out.

The Organization for Black Struggle, St. Louis A. Philip Randolph Institute, Greater Kansas City A. Philip Randolph Institute, St. Louis section of the National Council of Jewish Women and Missouri Faith Voices filed a lawsuit in September against Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and county election authorities.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court's Western District of Missouri, included the claim that "requiring mail-in ballots, but not absentee mail ballots, to be requested only by mail or in person and returned only by mail by close of polls on Election Day imposes a significant burden on Missouri voters' exercise of their fundamental right to vote, while advancing no legitimate state interest sufficiently weighty to justify this burden," and is therefore unconstitutional.

Voters must apply for non-absentee, mail-in ballots in-person or by mail, and local election authorities must receive the application by Oct. 21. Once voters receive their ballots by mail and complete them, the ballot envelopes must be notarized and returned by U.S. mail only, to be received by local election authorities no later than 7 p.m. Nov. 3.

Voters may request mail-in, absentee ballots in-person, by mail, email or fax, and the application must be received no later than Oct. 21. Once the voter receives their ballot by mail, completes it and, if necessary, gets it notarized, it may be returned in person or by mail and must be received no later than 7 p.m. Nov. 3.

District Judge Brian C. Wimes said in his Oct. 9 ruling that the plaintiffs were correct in their claim that those differing standards are unconstitutional "and any harm or cost to defendants to comply with the Court's order are outweighed by the imminent and irreparable harm to be incurred by plaintiffs, and thus Missouri voters."

However, Wimes noted he was aware of the limited time before the election and that remote voting already started Sept. 22.

Given that, he ruled Ashcroft and election authorities would not be required to change the ballot application process, but he added any ballot received through the mail could be returned through the mail, in person by a voter, or "through a relative within the second degree of consanguinity or affinity," as the plaintiffs had requested.

Wimes said any harm or cost from that change would be minimal, "especially when weighed against the risk of total disenfranchisement of Missouri voters."

Ashcroft immediately appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth District.

According to the appeal, "Plaintiffs' own evidence shows that Missouri's (local election authorities) lack the staff and resources to implement a new process midway through voting-by-mail. This attempt to change the rules for voting-by-mail weeks after it started is like asking the Court to change the rules for in-person voting at noon on Election Day, after hundreds of thousands of voters have already cast their ballots. The relief far exceeds the proper role and authority of the federal courts."

Wimes also granted a temporary restraining order against his own ruling Saturday, pending the appeals process - meaning nothing has changed with voting until there's a ruling by the appeals court.

It's unclear when the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' three-judge panel will issue its ruling, the Associated Press reported Monday.

There also has not yet been a ruling in the other remaining lawsuit over Missouri's voting laws, according to online court records.

That lawsuit - filed in Cole County Circuit Court against Ashcroft by the Washington, D.C.-based American Women organization and three Missouri plaintiffs from St. Louis and Webster Groves - had a trial last week before Cole County Judge Dan Green.

More information about voting in Missouri this year is available at sos.mo.gov.