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Government, Politics & Issues

How To Vote By Mail in Missouri's August Primary — And Do You Need A Notary?

Organizers help people who want to vote absentee outside the  St. Louis Public Library Schlafly branch in the Central West End. 7/21/20
Shula Neuman | St. Louis Public Radio
Organizers help people who want to vote absentee outside the St. Louis Public Library Schlafly branch in the Central West End.

Missouri’s primary election is two weeks away, but voters do not need to wait for Election Day to cast a ballot.

Last month, Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill into law that established a temporary vote-by-mail system for the Aug. 4 primary and Nov. 1 general election. 

The deadline for voters to apply for a mail-in or absentee ballot is 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 22. Under Missouri law, mail-in ballot applications must be submitted by mail or in person. Absentee ballot applications can be sent by email.  

What’s the difference between absentee and mail-in ballots? 

Absentee ballots are an American tradition dating to the Civil War. They can be filled out by any voter who, for various reasons, cannot physically make it to a polling location where they are registered to vote on Election Day. 

Missouri lists seven excuses for absentee voters, which include being sick, out of town, incarcerated or a poll worker. Most require the ballots to be notarized.

People who currently have the coronavirus or belong to an at-risk population can vote absentee without a notary. People who are immunocompromised or are 65 or older also qualify for the at-risk absentee category.

For the first time, Missouri voters who do not qualify to receive an absentee ballot can request a mail-in ballot. All mail-in ballots must be notarized.

How to notarize your ballot

All mail-in voters and some absentee voters must have their ballots notarized.

Unlike with absentee ballots, the new mail-in voting law allows people to charge a fee to notarize a mail-in ballot. But there are free options. Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has compiled a list of notaries in the St. Louis area who will sign a ballot for free. Most notaries require people to schedule an appointment in advance.

Completed ballots must arrive at the Board of Elections office in the mail or in person by 7 p.m. Aug. 4. St. Louis County has four satellite locations to process mail-in ballots.

The August primary will determine the Democratic and Republican nominees for the statewide offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Prominant local contests include a contentious race for the Democratic nomination for St. Louis County executive and Democratic primaries in St. Louis for treasurer and circuit attorney. 

Voting in elections during the pandemic

Parson signed the voter expansion bill into law in June after facing pressure to address voter safety at the polls and reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Some have criticized the bill as ineffective at minimizing risks to voters’ health. 

The ACLU of Missouri has filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the notary requirement puts voters' health at risk. The case, registered in Cole County, is ongoing, and a decision is unlikely to be reached until after the primary election. 

Neighboring states, including Kentucky and Tennessee, passed laws to allow any voter to request an absentee ballot this year. But Parson, a Republician, said eliminating requirements encourages voter fraud. Data shows that voter fraud is extremely rare

“What we are against, and what President Trump is against, is voting absentee without a reason and without a signature verification,” Parson said at the bill signing.

As of Monday, St. Louis County election authorities have received more than 85,000 vote-by-mail applications, shattering previous records. But only 3% of those applications are for mail-in ballots, said Eric Fey, the county’s Democratic director of elections. St. Louis County has more active voters than any other Missouri county.

He said that the vast majority of applications are for absentee ballots and that most have chosen the coronavirus as the reason for requesting one. 

The increase in voting by mail coincides with the county closing nearly half of its polling stations. Fey said the county had trouble finding locations that were willing to serve as polling locations and could not recruit enough poll workers to staff them. The county will operate 200 polling stations in August. 

In the past, voters have expressed fear over election authorities tossing out votes due to technicalities. Their fears are not unfounded. In the June election, Fey said he rejected 1,000 ballots. He said most were thrown out because the mail arrived late. Other votes were rejected because a signature was missing or the ballot was torn.

Fey said he encourages county residents to vote by mail, but stresses that voters should double-check their ballots and time it so the ballot arrives to election authorities early. 

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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