Judge sides with state of Missouri in voting rights lawsuit

Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green has ruled in favor of the state of Missouri in a voting rights lawsuit.

Along with the Washington, D.C.-based American Women organization, three Missouri plaintiffs from St. Louis and Webster Groves were part of the lawsuit against Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft over five election laws they said make it difficult or impossible for Missourians to vote.

The plaintiffs sought to make the following changes:

- "Eliminate the requirement that most voters have their ballot envelopes notarized.

- "Eliminate the requirement that some voters return their ballots by U.S. mail only.

- "Ensure that ballots are counted even if mail service delays cause them to be delivered after the polls close on Election Day.

- "Allow third parties to assist in collecting and submitting mail ballots.

- "Develop and implement consistent and fair signature matching protocols, and ensure that voters receive reasonable notice and an opportunity to cure if a signature is questioned."

Attorneys for the Missouri attorney general, representing Ashcroft in this case, said the Legislature may, under the law, authorize voting by mail as a special privilege, which it did in May in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Mike Parson signed the legislation into law in June.

As the law currently stands, Missouri voters this year in specific at-risk categories for contracting or transmitting the COVID-19 disease or voters who have contracted the disease may vote via absentee ballot by mail. Those ballots would have to be notarized, unless someone is incapacitated or confined due to illness or disability or if someone is a caregiver for a person in those circumstances.

People at risk for COVID-19 or who have already contracted the coronavirus that causes it also do not need to have their ballot notarized.

The attorney general's office argued that mail-in voting is not a constitutionally guaranteed right.

In his ruling, Green noted the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit Aug. 20, nearly three months after the Legislature passed the law.

The trial concluded in Green's court Oct. 8; the next day, the Missouri Supreme Court decided in a lawsuit brought by the NAACP against the state that the notary requirements for absentee and mail-in ballots do not violate the constitutional right to vote.

The court ruled the Missouri Constitution establishes that the right to vote is fundamental to Missouri citizens, but the right to vote absentee does not enjoy such high status. As a result, restrictions placed on mail-in balloting do not violate the fundamental right to vote because mail-in balloting is not a fundamental right under the Missouri Constitution.

"After a trial on the merits and consideration of the Supreme Court of Missouri's decision referenced above, this Court holds that plaintiffs (American Women) cannot prevail as a matter of law and have failed to prove their case. As such, this court enters judgment for the defendants (the State)," Green wrote.