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Missouri Voting Rights Advocates Suffer Another Setback Days Before Election

Weeks before the election, the unprecedneted circumstances of 2020 leave many voters with questions about how best to cast their ballots.
Weeks before the election, the unprecedneted circumstances of 2020 leave many voters with questions about how best to cast their ballots.

Missourians who vote by mail must return their ballots by mail and not in person following a federal appeals court’s order.

A coalition of civil rights groups last month sued Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and local election officials, including the Jackson County Election Board, arguing Missouri’s rules for absentee and mail-in voting are “burdensome and unjustified.”

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Brian C. Wimes agreed that not allowing mail-in ballots to be dropped off in person or by a relative risked disenfranchising voters, and he blocked the requirement.

But Ashcroft appealed Wimes’ ruling, and on Thursday the 8 th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis stayed the ruling until it can decide the matter.

Because the appeals court hasn’t scheduled a briefing for the case and Election Day is little more than a week away, it’s almost certain it won’t issue its decision before then. That would leave its stay in place, effectively leaving the Missouri vote-by-mail requirement intact.

“We were really disappointed that Secretary Ashcroft sought to try and block this injunction, which we thought was extremely reasonable and unburdensome to election officials,” said Denise Lieberman, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

“But unfortunately it’s been stayed. So what it means is that the injunction can’t go into effect.”

The case is not entirely moot, since the plaintiffs have challenged other Missouri voting restrictions. But it does mean that those restrictions will remain in place on Election Day, Nov. 3.

It was the second major setback this month for voting rights advocates. On Oct. 9, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Missouri’s law requiring absentee and mail-in ballots to be notarized.

Earlier this year, the Missouri Legislature expanded voting options due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including authorizing all Missouri voters to cast mail-in ballots even if they are not eligible to cast absentee ballots. But the law also requires absentee and mail-in ballot envelopes to be notarized for all voters except those who have contracted or are in an at-risk category of contracting COVID-19.

The lawsuit before Wimes was brought by the Organization for Black Struggle, the Greater Kansas City and St. Louis chapters of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis and Missouri Faith Voices.

In a joint statement following the 8 th Circuit’s stay of Wimes’ injunction, the groups blasted Ashcroft, saying he “has worked vigorously to reduce access to the ballot for vulnerable Missouri voters” and the Eighth Circuit “rubber-stamped this blatant exercise of voter suppression.”

Ashcroft issued a brief statement, saying he was “pleased the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed not to change the rules for returning mail-in ballots.”

The challengers had argued there was no principled reason to distinguish between absentee ballots, which can be dropped off in person, and mail-in ballots.

Ashcroft countered that the requirement that mail-in ballots must be returned by the U.S. Postal Service imposed a minimal burden on voters.

Wimes, in issuing his injunction, found otherwise.

“ … Defendants have presented no reasonable justification for different treatment of remote voters,” he wrote. “On this basis, because the right to vote is at issue and the risk is total disenfranchisement even if the voter does everything right, and because the Defendants already have a scheme in place to accommodate remote ballots, the Court finds Plaintiffs likely to succeed on the merits … as it relates to the manner in which remote ballots can be returned to the election authority.”

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