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Missouri’s First Coronavirus Election Could Foreshadow Shift Toward Absentee Voting

A poll worker sets out "I voted today" stickers at the St. Louis County Board Of Elections on Oct. 25, 2018.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
More than 76,000 people asked for an absentee ballot for the June 2 municipal election in St. Louis County, an all-time record.

Under normal circumstances, Heather Robinett and Ella Jones wouldn’t be running for mayor of Ferguson right now. 

But these aren’t normal times. The coronavirus pandemic pushed the April 7 municipal and school elections to June 2. 

These contests are taking place in a radically different electoral landscape than the beginning of the year. Not only are some jurisdictions increasingly gravitating toward absentee ballots, but candidates like Robinett and Jones are using social media, direct mail and phone banking to reach out to voters for Tuesday’s election.

“Mid-March, when the outbreak was getting more traction, I realized that I wasn’t comfortable going to knock on doors — especially with elderly residents who were seeming to be more impacted by the coronavirus,” Robinett said. “And so, that just stopped the momentum of our door-knocking campaign, which is really one of the most important things in a local campaign.”

Once Tuesday’s elections come to an end, officials will pivot quickly to the Aug. 4 primary elections. And many are expecting an even greater uptick in absentee balloting, especially if Gov. Mike Parson signs legislation that expands the ability for people to vote from their homes.

“I've asked them repeatedly to use the June election as a dry run for August — and August as a dry run for November,” said Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. “That doesn’t mean we’re not taking June seriously and we’re not taking August seriously. But life is a little bit different than it was six months ago. And it is a compressed schedule.”

A new landscape

Teresa Doll fills out a ballot at Central Baptist Church in St. Louis on March 10, 2020.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Teresa Doll fills out a ballot at Central Baptist Church in St. Louis on March 10. Election officials are expecting much lower in-person turnout for the June 2 elections.

Citing fears of spreading COVID-19, Parson signed an executive order earlier this year moving the state’s municipal elections to June 2. St. Louis County and other jurisdictions have scores of key elections for city-based offices and school boards — as well as school bonding issues. 

St. Louis County election officials sent out applications for absentee ballots to voters who were over 60. That may be one of the reasons why more than 76,000 people sent applications back — an all-time record. That’s a stunning statistic, since municipal elections almost always elicit less interest than the state’s August or November elections.

“I would say that overall voter turnout for this municipal election probably will not be higher than normal,” St. Louis County Board of Elections Democratic director Eric Fey said. “As a matter of fact, it could still be lower than normal. But it will just mean that the method of voting will shift dramatically. And that it's very possible in this election that a majority of votes could be cast by absentee ballots. That has never happened before, but we could see almost a record low Election Day in-person turnout.”

Even with fewer voters expected to be physically in polling places, elections officials are still taking numerous precautions. St. Charles County Elections Director Kurt Bahr says he ordered plastic shields to separate poll workers from voters.

“We also received from the Secretary of State’s office a large supply of hand sanitizer and face masks,” Bahr said. “The face masks are for the judges, but the hand sanitizer is for both the judges and the voters.”

Ashcroft said he drove roughly 5,000 miles to deliver election supplies — equivalent to driving from Jefferson City to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, plus 1,000 miles. He says he’s heard different takes from local election officials about whether voters are preferring to vote absentee. Some places like St. Louis County saw a surge in requests for absentee ballots, while others did not.

“I think we have other counties where people don’t want to vote absentee,” Ashcroft said. “They want to vote in person. They want to have that, to me it’s a thrill, of filling out the ballot and running it through the scanner and hearing the beep that your vote has been tabulated.”

Absentee ballot expansion

It’s a safe bet that the upcoming elections in August and November will be very different from years’ past. 

That’s because the legislature passed a bill allowing anyone over 65 or with certain health conditions to cast an absentee ballot without a notary. And anybody afraid of contracting COVID-19 can mail in a ballot this year — but will have to get it notarized.

Parson has said he will make a decision on whether to sign or veto the legislation soon. The timing of when he makes the decision is important, because absentee balloting for the August primaries begins on June 23. And the legislation will go into effect immediately.

Election officials say they’re already gearing up. Since the bill’s provisions would only be in effect for the rest of 2020, Bahr said he’s planning to hire temporary workers to handle a potential influx in absentee ballots.

“We're not going to invest a large amount of taxpayer money in new machines that we're only going to need for two elections,” Bahr said. “And so by that, that means we'll simply need to hire more people to assist us in our office.”

Rick Stream, St. Louis County’s GOP election director, said the county is also prepping for heavy absentee voting.

“We expect a high number of absentee ballots to be processed in this election and the next two elections,” Stream said. “We have procedures in place to expand the ballot openers and we purchased additional scanners so we'll be able to start to count the ballots on Election Day — so we can report hopefully by 7:30 in the evening like we normally do.” 

If Parson signs the legislation expanding the absentee balloting process and establishing the mail-in ballot program, Ashcroft said he’s hoping voters send in their ballots quickly. “Because I think the nightmare scenario for any election authority is a large percentage of your voters turn in either their mail in ballots or absentee ballots… on the last day,” he said. 

Ashcroft went on to say that elections officials are “taking precautions that we have never taken before.”

“I think in November, it will be the safest November election that people have ever participated in,” he said. “People need to participate. If people aren't going to participate with everything that the local election authorities are doing, it’s just sad.”

In the meantime, voters and candidates are continuing to adjust to a new reality. Jones, one of the Ferguson mayor contenders, is using social media and Zoom calls to get the word out. And even her watch party is different from past campaigns.

“We will be on the Urban League lot, because we didn’t want to go inside to a closed place,” Jones said. “And they’re going to barbecue some hot dogs and hamburgers. But we can be at least six feet apart.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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