Missouri voting lawsuit appealed to state Supreme Court

The Missouri Supreme Court at 207 W. High St. in Jefferson City.
The Missouri Supreme Court at 207 W. High St. in Jefferson City.

Civil rights groups have filed to appeal a Cole County judge's ruling Thursday to the Missouri Supreme Court in a lawsuit over voting requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Missouri NAACP and Missouri League of Women Voters filed the lawsuit to challenge the constitutional validity of absentee voting legislation approved by the Missouri Legislature on the final day of session in May and later signed by Gov. Mike Parson.

The law expands absentee voting by mail through the rest of the year, but unless an absentee voter is incapacitated or confined due to illness or has contracted coronavirus or is considered at-risk for the disease - according to a legally defined list of specific age, living or health conditions - then by-mail absentee voters still must have their ballot envelopes notarized.

Non-absentee voting by mail - an option open to anyone - also requires that a voter's ballot envelope be notarized.

The organizations' lawsuit challenged the law's notarization requirement.

Cole County Judge Jon Beetem dismissed the lawsuit in May, finding the groups had failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted.

The state Supreme Court in June reversed that decision and allowed the lawsuit to proceed. Beetem denied a motion for a preliminary injunction in July.

Beetem ruled Thursday that the plaintiffs had failed to prove their case and denied an injunction - including because a claim that the notarization requirement poses an unconstitutional health risks to voters "is unsupported by evidence, because plaintiffs' expert concedes that social distancing and other prudent precautions are consistently effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and plaintiffs provided no evidence of any instance of transmission of COVID-19 during a notarization."

Beetem's ruling also included that because voting by mail started Sept. 22, "invalidating the notarization requirement, and re-printing thousands of ballot envelopes, during a process that is already underway threatens to create confusion among voters and local election authorities, and it would subject Missouri voters to different legal standards during the same election, depending on when they cast their absentee or mail-in ballot."

The League of Women Voters of Missouri posted a statement on its website Thursday in response to the ruling.

"We are disappointed that the Cole County Circuit Court failed to protect voters by waiving the notary requirement for voters in 2020," said Evelyn Maddox, the organization's president.

"The League of Women Voters believes many Missouri voters may be disenfranchised because the state says they must appear in person before a notary to have a mail-in ballot counted. League members across the state hope the Missouri Supreme Court will see the error of this decision and ensure that all Missouri voters have the right to safely cast a ballot during this pandemic," Maddox said.

The League of Women Voters and NAACP filed their appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court on Thursday.

Two other lawsuits are also challenging the state's voting laws during the pandemic.

Cole County Judge Dan Green ruled Sept. 15 to allow a lawsuit by the Washington, D.C.-based American Women advocacy organization and three Missouri plaintiffs from St. Louis and Webster Groves to move forward.

That lawsuit also seeks to eliminate the ballot notarization requirement and requirement that some voters return their ballots by U.S. mail only.

The plaintiffs in that lawsuit also seek to ensure ballots are counted even if mail delivery delays cause them to arrive to election authorities after polls close on Election Day; allow third parties to assist in collecting and submitting mail ballots; and 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."

American Women's lawsuit is scheduled to be heard before Judge Green at 9 a.m. Oct. 5.

Another lawsuit was filed Sept. 17 in federal court by 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 against Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and county election authorities.

That lawsuit in the U.S. District Court's Western District of Missouri includes seeking to prevent election authorities from not counting otherwise valid mail-in or absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by noon the Friday after Election Day; prevent authorities from rejecting a ballot for certain mistakes; and give voters a chance to fix certain mistakes on their ballot envelopes.

A teleconference hearing in the case was scheduled for Thursday morning in chambers before District Judge Brian C. Wimes. There has not yet been notice of a further hearing, according to online court records.

In the meantime, more information on voting this year - including voting options, how to register, where to find a notary who will work for free, and deadlines - is available through the Secretary of State's Office website at sos.mo.gov.

Cole County voter registration, absentee ballot requests and other information is available through the Cole County Clerk's Office website at colecounty.org/217/County-Clerk.

Ashcroft has urged people to vote in person at polls or through the traditional non-mail-in absentee option so as to avoid mistakes that could prevent their vote from being counted - though he said up to a third of all ballots cast in November may not be in-person.

Ashcroft also advised to give plenty of time for voting options involving the mail - six or seven days in each direction of the process of applying for a ballot, then at least two weeks for a completed ballot to make it back to a local election authority on time to be counted.

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