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Document: Ruling in Missouri NAACP, et al., vs. State of Missouri, et al.

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The Missouri Supreme Court has upheld a judgment by Cole County Judge Jon Beetem in favor of the state in a case regarding absentee voting laws in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The high court heard arguments on the case Tuesday and issued its ruling Friday afternoon.

The NAACP and Missouri League of Women Voters filed the original lawsuit in Cole County Court to challenge the constitutional validity of absentee voting legislation approved by the Missouri Legislature 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.

Beetem ruled against the plaintiffs late last month and denied their request for an injunction because he found a claim the notarization requirement poses an unconstitutional health risk to voters was unsupported by evidence — social distancing and other precautions work, and no instance of any transmission of COVID-19 during a notarization was provided.

In a decision that cannot be attributed to any particular judge, the Supreme Court's ruling shows the judges agreed with Beetem because "Missouri law does not support or warrant the relief the challengers request."

"Considering its plain language and to avoid rendering other provisions meaningless, the statute allowing voters who expect to be confined 'due to illness' to cast an absentee ballot without notarization extends only to those who are ill, not those who wish to remain home to avoid contracting or transmitting the COVID-19 virus," the ruling reads. "There is no constitutional right to absentee or mail-in voting, and the challengers fail to raise any other constitutional challenges to the new absentee and mail-in statutes."

In a separate opinion, Judge Paul Wilson concurred and wrote, "To be eligible to cast an absentee ballot without notarization under the plain language of state statute, a Missouri voter only need genuinely, but entirely subjectively, 'expect'  — at the time he or she requests an absentee ballot — to be unable to vote at the polls on election day because the voter expects to have COVID-19 (be incapacitated) or to be required to quarantine as a result exposure to the virus (be confined)."

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