Missouri has three elections scheduled for later this year, culminating in the general election on November 3. Some state officials seem reluctant to change voting laws in light of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the recent election in Wisconsin revealed serious inequalities in voting access. Milwaukee, which normally has 180 polling places for an April election, only had enough poll workers to open 5 polling places, creating extremely long lines at those locations.
To avoid these problems Missouri needs to prepare now by expanding opportunities for absentee voting, making polling places safer, and providing resources to county election officials to implement these changes.
Missouri is one of a small number of states that only allow absentee voting for a few reasons (like being incapacitated due to illness). While we face the ongoing threat from COVID-19, Missouri voters should not have to choose between risking their health and exercising their right to vote. Missouri needs to adopt no-excuse absentee voting, or allow social distancing as a valid reason for requesting an absentee ballot.
There are additional changes needed to deal with an anticipated surge in absentee voting. The state should establish an online or email portal for absentee ballot requests. In addition, with the voter’s permission, the state should let county election offices pre-fill the absentee request form for voters. These changes will limit human contact and help make the process for requesting absentee ballots to go smoothly.
Missouri is also one of only three states that requires the voter’s signature on an absentee ballot to be notarized before returning the absentee ballot to the local election office. During a global health pandemic, it is overly burdensome for voters to find a notary to witness their signature. In addition, local election officials check the signature on every absentee ballot against the signature they have on file, so the notary requirement is redundant and needs to be repealed.
Since the state may not be able to afford pre-paid postage for returned absentee ballots, the state should allow counties to provide drop boxes in high-traffic areas where voters can return absentee ballots rather than mailing them. Furthermore, Missouri should adopt procedures to notify absentee voters if their signature is missing or if there is a discrepancy with their signature, so that voters can correct the problem and have their ballot counted. These changes will help reduce errors that sometimes cause absentee ballots to be rejected.
At the same time, in-person voting will continue so we need to adopt procedures to make polling places safer for voters and poll workers. It will help to allow counties to establish “vote centers” in larger facilities that allow for more social distancing than a typical polling place. Any voter in the county would be able to vote at one of these vote centers. An even better change would be to allow people to vote in person at a vote center up to two before the election, to avoid large crowds of people at polling places on Election Day.
It will take resources, staff, and planning to implement these changes in time for the upcoming elections.
For example, election officials will need to work with the U.S. Postal Service to create a system for tracking absentee ballots moving through the mail. It is also important for the federal government to support the continued viability of the postal service. County election officials will need more time to process and count the expected surge in absentee ballots. Also, counties will likely need to find replacements for elderly poll workers who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. Finally, any voting changes need to be clearly communicated to the public well before these elections take place so that voters know their rights and responsibilities.
Adapting our voting rules to COVID-19 needs to be one of the priorities when the Missouri legislature returns to work. Time is short, and Missouri county clerks are already requesting many of these changes. It is crucial for our democracy that free and fair elections continue during this health crisis.
David Kimball is a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a member of Scholars Strategy Network. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.