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A Guide For Helping Voters Of Color Avoid Hurdles In This Election

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has approved a petition to allow Missouri voters to decide whether to expand Medicaid.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
There's a big push to get voters of color to the polls this election, but there may be hurdles for some.

With only a few weeks left until the general election, St. Louis voting rights advocates are pushing for people of color to vote. Advocates say they are increasingly concerned about voter intimidation at the polls after President Donald Trump encouraged supporters to go to polling stations and observe voters.

Historically, voters of color have faced more hurdles at the polls. Advocates have been stepping up efforts to train poll workers and election officials about voter intimidation and what to look for on Election Day. But it’s just one of the many concerns as more voters opt for mail-in or absentee ballots because of the pandemic.

St. Louis Public Radio spoke with advocates and local election officials about common concerns and what’s being done to address them.

What happens if my voter eligibility is questioned at the polls on Election Day?

Do not be discouraged from casting your ballot if you experience your voter eligibility being questioned by “credentialed challengers,” said Denise Lieberman, the director and general counsel to the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition. Political parties are allowed to have these challengers on the inside of polling places. These individuals are registered voters within their specific jurisdiction, and their names are submitted ahead of time to the election authority.

While these challengers are allowed to be on the inside of polling places, they are not allowed to talk to voters. They may, however, stand next to check-in tables and dispute a voter’s eligibility directly to the poll worker as a voter is checking in for any of three reasons, including: identity, residency or voter status.

If a vote is challenged, it doesn’t mean you’re unable to vote. Poll workers and election officials will verify your information through the voter registration database. Once your information is verified, you will be able to vote. But Lieberman said, this process can lead to longer lines and discourage voters from wanting to cast their ballots.

What should I do if I experience voter intimidation?

Voter intimidation is illegal under state and federal law. If you experience it or face challenges while trying to cast your ballot, Lieberman said, don’t leave your polling place. Instead, call or text 866-OUR-VOTE. There will be an attorney waiting to assist you. The Missouri Voter Protection Coalition has recruited roughly 1,000 volunteer poll monitors statewide to help with monitoring polling places.

The coalition, along with members of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office, have met with election officials from St. Louis and St. Louis County, as well as St. Charles County, on what to look for when it comes to voter intimidation both inside and outside of the polls.

There is a 25-foot buffer zone that prevents individuals on the outside from accosting voters or impeding the entrance to the polling place. While Missouri is an open carry state, weapons are not allowed at polling places or within 25 feet of an entrance of the polling place.

“You could imagine a scenario where someone could be parked across the street, for example, brandishing a weapon,” Lieberman said. “State law and federal law make voter intimidation a felony. Intimidating a voter under federal law is a five-year felony. Conspiracy to intimidate a voter is a 10-year felony.”

Individuals caught engaging in voter intimidation will be reported by a poll monitor and removed.

Are people of color afraid to go to the polls because of COVID-19, especially because they have been more impacted by the virus?

The concerns do not appear to be as widespread as they were during the August primary.

While speaking with a few voting rights advocates, Louise Wilkerson, the president of the League of Women Voters of St. Louis, said: “Given the fact that Missourians 65 and older can vote absentee, by mail, or they can start going in now to vote absentee to avoid Election Day crowds, then they’re not so concerned about that. What I have heard, though, is a lot of complaints or concerns about all the confusion between absentee voting and mail-in voting.”

Wilkerson said many Black voters are also worried that their mail-in or absentee ballots won’t reach the Board of Elections by Election Day.

For those concerned about their ballots not making it in time, the League suggests:

  • Hand-delivering absentee ballots to the Board of Elections before Election Day.
  • Voting in-person absentee at your local precinct or at one of the satellite voting locations.

What do I need to know about mail-in and absentee ballots ahead of Election Day?

The deadline to request an absentee and mail-in ballot is 5 p.m. Oct. 21.

An absentee ballot must be notarized before its return if one of the following reasons was given when requesting it:

  • Absence on the day of election from your jurisdiction.
  • A religious belief or practice.
  • Incarcerated, under the condition the person is eligible to vote.
  • Participating in the address confidentiality program for safety reasons.
  • Employed as an election authority, a member of an election authority, or work for an election authority that is different from the voter’s polling place.

However, an absentee ballot does not need to be notarized if one of the following applies:

  • You have an illness or a disability that prevents you from leaving your house.
  • You are at risk of contracting the coronavirus or you’ve had it.

You can mail the absentee ballot in or return it in person to the local election authority. You can also vote absentee in person at your local election office.

Mail-in ballots do not require an excuse, but they do require a notary. You may request a mail-in ballot by mail or in person at your local election authority. If you vote via a mail-in ballot, it must be returned through the mail. If you want your mail-in ballot to be counted, it must be received by the election authority at or by 7 p.m. on Election Day. A court case that seeks to allow voters to drop off mail-in ballots in person is now before a federal appellate court.

If I do not fill out my absentee or mail-in ballot correctly, will I be given the chance to correct my ballot?

Yes. However, since the election is less than two weeks out, Board of Elections officials are requesting that voters double check their ballots and envelopes before they mail them to the Board of Elections.

“At this point, if we receive a ballot back with a deficiency, we just mail it back to the voter. But once there's not time to mail ballots back and forth anymore, then we start calling them,” said Eric Fey, St. Louis County’s Democratic Board of Elections director.

Gary Stoff, St. Louis Republican Board of Elections director, said if voters have a deficiency on their ballots, then the city election officials are advising them to go to the St. Louis Board of Elections to make those changes.

Where can I find a notary?

The Missouri Voter Protection Coalition has compiled a growing list of organizations, libraries, faith groups and others offering notary services.

The Missouri Secretary of State’s office has also created a list of notary services.

In the age of COVID-19, what is being done to keep people safe while voting at the polls?

For those voting in St. Louis County, make sure you have your mask, because you are required to wear it all times while voting. The St. Louis County Board of Elections has placed hand sanitizer inside of each polling location and outlined social distancing space on the floor for voters. The election officials are also providing each voter with their own stylus pen to cast their vote, and immediately after you cast your vote an election official will disinfect the voting machine for the next voter.

Some of the same practices will be in place while voting in St. Louis, however, instead of disposable stylus pens, city election officials will offer Q-tips to vote by touchscreen. The City Board of Elections officials have placed safety shields between voters and poll workers for an added level of health and safety protection. Also, masks are not mandated to vote in St. Louis, but they are encouraged.

What if I don’t have access to transportation to get to the polls or return my absentee ballot?

The St. Louis chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute will be providing transportation to and from the polls on Election Day. This institute will also provide rides to voters turning in their absentee ballots in person on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Voters will need to call their hotline at 314-562-0411 to make reservations for transportation. Keith Robinson, the St. Louis chapter president of the institute, said drivers will be taking safety precautions as a result of the pandemic. Masks will be required, temperatures will be taken, and common areas will be disinfected.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @marissanne2011

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