Voting rights advocates file federal suit to protect Missourians’ right to vote amid pandemic

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A group of voting rights advocates filed a federal lawsuit last week against Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and the state’s 116 local election authorities alleging that the state’s COVID-19 absentee and mail voting systems place unlawful restrictions on Missourians’ right to vote.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District in Missouri by the Organization for Black Struggle, Missouri Faith Voices, the St. Louis and Greater Kansas City chapters of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the St. Louis chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, Demos, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition are representing the advocates.

“In the midst of a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic individuals, Missouri is constructing unnecessary barriers to the ballot that are forcing people to decide between their vote and their health,” said Keith Robinson, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s St. Louis Chapter: “This violates the basic promise of a democracy.”

CONFUSION REQUESTING, CASTING BALLOTS
Denise Lieberman, general counsel for the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition (MVPC) said the suit challenges the processes of requesting and casting absentee or mail ballots.

In May, the Missouri Legislature approved a measure expanding options for voting absentee or by mail in the 2020 elections because of the pandemic. Voters could request an absentee ballot if they are in an at-risk category for contracting the virus or any voter could request a mail-in ballot, but each option has different rules.

Mail-in ballots, which have to be notarized, can only be returned by mail, while absentee ballots, which did not have to be notarized, can be returned by mail or in person.

“There’s really no reason to distinguish between absentee and mail-in ballots, and we’re asking the court to order that mail-in ballots be returned in the same way as absentee ballots,” Lieberman said.

REJECTED FOR MINOR ERRORS
Lieberman said several absentee and mail-in ballots were rejected in the August primary election for minor omissions or deficiencies on ballot envelope forms that were not material to the voter’s eligibility and most voters weren’t notified their ballot had been rejected – meaning their vote was not counted.

“We’re seeking an expedited review of the case in light of the upcoming Nov. 3 general election,” she said.

CHALLENGE TO NOTARY RULE
Closing arguments were heard last week in a separate lawsuit filed in Cole County Circuit Court seeking to allow all Missourians to vote by mail without a notary during the pandemic. The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and MVPC on behalf of the NAACP of Missouri, the League of Women Voters of Missouri and several individuals.


 

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