Milkayla Allen

The right to vote is not up for debate, nor is it conditional. Voting serves as the cornerstone of our democracy, and we must stop at nothing to protect it. One of the most valuable pathways to cultivating structural solutions that shape our reality is through our electoral system.

Unfortunately, some of our state leaders don’t seem to feel an obligation to safeguard our right to participate. Missouri’s election laws are miserably outdated, and yet just last week Governor Parson told Missourians that, if they didn’t feel safe voting in person, “then don’t vote.” Remarks like these from our leadership are deplorable, showing us just how little regard is given to the voters of this state. 

Voters deserve every opportunity to be heard and have their votes cou​nted. Unflinching Democrats like state Representative Wiley Price (D-St. Louis) led the charge and uplifted our demands around democracy with the passage of SB631, which allows all Missouri voters who are not at high risk for COVID-19 to cast a mail-in ballot, though it still holds a notary requirement. 

Some ​accommodations have been made in order to allow voters to participate safely and easily amidst the COVID-19 pandemic through the passage of SB631. The solutions are narrow and temporary. Price said, “We achieved a lot – but the bill doesn’t go far enough.” 

The bill allows all Missouri voters to cast a mail-in ballot with no excuse, but requires anyone who doesn’t fit the criteria of a high-risk individual to get the ballot notarized. This means that millions of voters between 18 and 64 must violate social-distancing rules to get a ballot notarized. ​According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, Missouri is one of only 12 states left that requires a notary public or a witness for the return of ballots. Additionally, the process of requesting and returning a ballot is overly cumbersome for voters, with most counties requiring all information to be mailed.

The notary requirement will disproportionately affect black voters. Black people in Missouri and across the United States are dying from COVID-19 at three times the rate of our counterparts, so it does our community little good to have a no-excuse mail-in option if we still have to risk our lives to notarize our ballots in person.

Black voters are key witnesses to what happens to democracy when barriers to the ballot stifle our voices. Furthermore, as the seeds of civil unrest are sown in our city and across the country, we’re fighting for our lives while also fighting for our lives. We need multiple avenues to advocate for ourselves, therefore having a safe and accessible pathway to the ballot is essential to giving Black voters another opportunity to be heard. We deserve an all-encompassing solution. Both our lives and our futures at stake. 

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the profound structural shift necessary to create a richer, fairer democracy in our state won’t originate in the Legislature. It will be achieved through deep-rooted, bipartisan solutions driven by the people. 

“I’ll always champion ballot initiatives,” Price said. “That is true democracy. The people coming together and saying: this is what we want.”

Thirty-four other states have figured it out. At minimum, they’ve permanently expanded no-excuse absentee voting options. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some states like Texas have recently adopted more expansive vote-by-mail practices. 

“I think all Missourians should have the option to vote absentee, because there are many people like me who can’t make it to the polls or it’s more difficult to do so,” said St. Louis County resident Royalene Davis, who had never voted absentee before COVID-19.

Davis has made it to the polls every year despite health conditions that made it burdensome to get out and vote.

“If Missouri expands absentee voting, I believe we may be able to get more voters. That should be the point – trying to get more voters, not to keep anyone from participating,” Davis said.

With the option to cast an absentee ballot without barriers, Missourians like Davis could comfortably vote from home instead of having to navigate transportation, stand in long lines, or risk illness amidst a pandemic. Missouri voters shouldn’t have to choose between their health and democracy – this year or any other. 

We must stop at nothing short of demanding the freedom to participate in our democracy in a way that’s safe and accessible to every Missouri voter. Voters should have the option to cast an absentee ballot without a notary or an excuse, and we should have a robust early voting framework that includes extended weekday and weekend voting.

Removing superfluous and suppressive barriers to the ballot will mean more Missourians can exercise their right to participate. It means we’ll get a voice. 

Action St. Louis is partnered with Missouri Jobs with Justice to connect voters on this issue. Together, we’re committed to helping lead a citizen-backed effort to strengthen our access to elections. 

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