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Despite concerns from public health officials, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is encouraging all eligible Missourians to vote in person on Election Day rather than by mail.
“It is safe to go in person, and that is the best way to make sure your vote counts,” Ashcroft told The Beacon.
But that advice comes in direct conflict with what the Kansas City, Missouri Health Department encourages: That people avoid crowds on Election Day, now less than 50 days away.
“First and foremost, I would really be encouraging folks to look at the absentee voting option,” said Frank Thompson, deputy director of the city Health Department. “Even if they look at going to their local election board and doing absentee in person, the number of people is going to be a lot less than a polling station.”
Ashcroft’s comments come at a time when more voters are expressing interest in voting by mail in November. A recent poll from The Washington Post-University of Maryland found that 6 in 10 registered voters want to cast their ballots by mail. According to The New York Times, 27 states — including Missouri — and the District of Columbia have expanded access to voting by mail in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic to accommodate more voters looking to cast their ballots remotely.
Ashcroft, who is up for reelection in November, said his office has worked with local election authorities to ready supplies of personal protective equipment like face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, social distancing markers for the ground and one-time-use pens for Election Day.
He says if someone is unable to vote in person, they should request an absentee ballot as soon as possible, if they haven’t already. He adds that there are “holes” in the current mail-in voting process and that mail-in ballots may not be received in time. Ballots that are received late — after Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. — will not be counted, he said.
“Here’s the way I think about it,” Ashcroft said. “If I had the winning lottery ticket that means I get $250 million and all I have to do is turn it into the lottery to get that money, am I just going to throw it in an envelope and put a stamp on it and drop it in the mailbox, or am I going to go to the lottery office?
“I want to encourage everyone that can go to the polls to vote in person.”
Increased interest in vote-by-mail this year places pressure on the United States Postal Service as the agency faces funding woes and delays in mail delivery. In letters sent late July to 46 states — including Kansas and Missouri — and Washington, D.C., the USPS warned that the agency cannot guarantee that all ballots mailed before Election Day will return in time to meet each state’s deadlines. In other words: Mailed ballots may arrive after Election Day, meaning they might not count as an official vote.
— Jay Ashcroft (@JayAshcroftMO) September 11, 2020
The letter to Kansas issued by Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the USPS, advised that Kansans intending to vote by mail should send their ballot no later than Oct. 30. Missouri voters intending to mail their ballot should do so no later than Oct. 27, according to the letter sent to Ashcroft.
In a statement to The Beacon, Mark Inglett, the USPS spokesperson for the Kansas City metro, Springfield, Joplin and Cape Girardeau, affirmed the Postal Service’s commitment to delivering election mail in a timely manner.
“We employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all Election Mail, including ballots,” the statement says. “This includes close coordination and partnerships with election officials at the local and state levels.”
Meanwhile, in-person voting has raised concern among public health advocates and voters about possible COVID-19 outbreaks. Following Wisconsin’s primary election on April 7, the state health department found that 52 people who had voted in person or worked at a polling place tested positive for COVID-19.
If you do go in person to vote, Thompson with the health department suggests familiarizing yourself with the ballot ahead of time to minimize your time at the polling location. He says to make sure you are wearing a mask and to use hand sanitizer both when you enter and leave the polling station. At most polling places, hand sanitizer should be provided.
“The most important thing is just awareness of any exchange of materials and the spacing,” Thompson said, suggesting that everyone maintain social distancing.
Thompson advises that anyone worried about the spread of COVID-19 on Election Day should make use of mail-in or advance voting options.
A new system for Missouri
Because of concerns posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill in June to expand access to mail-in voting during the primary election in August and the general election in November. The changes make it so that all Missourians are eligible to vote by mail in November, but ballots must be signed by a notary to count. Voters in an “at-risk” category — voters who are 65 and older, immunocompromised, have chronic or respiratory conditions or have contracted COVID-19 — are allowed to vote absentee without a notary signature.
The expansion of mail-in voting is a change for Missouri. In previous years, voters could only vote absentee if they met one of the following criteria: if they plan to be away from the county they vote in on Election Day, they are confined due to illness or disability, they serve as a caretaker for someone with an illness or disability, they plan to be a poll worker, they have a religious belief or practice that doesn’t allow them to go in person to the polls, they are incarcerated, or they are part of an address protection program.
Now, Missouri election officials are anticipating a large influx of mail-in ballots around Election Day, an unprecedented situation for a state that traditionally has had strict voting measures in place.
In the August primary election, absentee ballots in Missouri had an 89.9% voter return rate, with 2.3% of mailed ballots rejected. The newer method of mail-in ballots had a lower return rate of 78.6% and a higher rejection rate of 6.3%, according to data provided by the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office.
In comparison, Kansas had a 82.9% return on the over 315,000 mail-in ballots that were sent to voters, which was 10% higher than previous elections, according to Katie Koupal, the deputy assistant secretary of state in Kansas.
Rather than just returning mail-in ballots through the mail, Kansans can also return them through secure drop-off boxes or in person at their local election authority. Mail-in advance ballots in Kansas don’t need to be notarized.
Local election officials are already seeing more requests for mailed ballots ahead of Election Day — the last day to request a mail-in ballot in Missouri is Oct. 21; it’s Oct. 27 in Kansas.
Corey Dillon, the Democratic election director for the Jackson County Election Board, said the office has already received thousands of applications for absentee and mail-in ballots. Local election offices in Missouri will start mailing those to voters on Sept. 22.
“Once those ballots are sent to the voters who requested them, as quickly as they can get those ballots voted and mailed back to us, the better,” Dillon said. “We don’t want voters to take their chance in waiting till the last minute.”
Echoing concerns from the Postal Service, Dillon advises that voters allow at least a week to mail their ballots to their local election office to account for any possibilities of delivery delays.
Shawn Kieffer, the Republican election director for the Kansas City, Missouri, Board of Elections, said the expansion of mail-in voting this year places pressure on local election boards that have not traditionally handled a large volume of mailed ballots. In contrast, states where ballots are mailed to all voters, like Oregon, Washington and Colorado, already have election systems compatible with vote-by-mail.
Local election boards across Missouri, however, have had to adapt in a short amount of time.
“It took them years and years to put in place, to get mail-in voting just right,” Kieffer said of other states. “And then now they’re asking us to do it, sort of like overnight, and we’re just not set up to do that. Down the road we can be if we’re given the proper money and resources, but right now we’re not.”
To prepare for the surge of mail-in ballots on Election Day, Kieffer said the Kansas City Election Board will increase the number of people who will assist in processing absentee and mail-in ballots.
“We’ve also ordered more machines that will process this information,” Kieffer said. “So we’ve got more people and more machines.”
Local election officials are also adapting and retrofitting in-person polling locations to comply with social distancing guidelines and advice from public health officials. During the Aug. 4 primary elections, polling places in Kansas City had hand sanitizer stations, polling booths spaced 6 feet apart and protective shields. A mask mandate was already in place in Kansas City at the time and will still be in place on Election Day.
Both Dillon and Kieffer said those choosing to vote in person can expect these same pandemic precautions at their polling places on Nov. 3.
As co-captain of the Election Protection Call Center for Kansas and Missouri, Vicki Smith typically receives calls from voters ranging from questions about voter ID requirements to voters facing problems at their polling locations. This year, she also anticipates calls about the deadlines and procedures for mail-in voting.
Smith said voters who experience issues with their polling place enforcing social distancing guidelines can alert their local election authority or call the Election Protection hotline, which is dedicated to protecting the vote.
Voters who may be unable to vote inside their polling place and are not voting by mail, may be able to vote curbside, an option in Missouri where voters can cast their ballots outside the polling location. In localities with an official mask mandate, Smith said, a voter who cannot wear a mask could use the curbside voting option; voters should first check with their local election authority if curbside voting is available.
And for those planning to vote in-person on Election Day, Smith advises going to the polls during off-hours to avoid large crowds and long lines, like in the mid-morning hours or early afternoon.
“Generally, that time when people are driving into work in the morning and stopping on the way in is a really crowded time, and when people are driving home at night, it’s a really crowded time. And lunch is a really crowded time,” Smith said. “Just try to go at a little bit of an ‘off hour’ if you can.”
Virtual Event: Mobilizing Voters in a Pandemic
Join The Beacon on Tuesday, Sept. 22 at noon for a conversation with local leaders working to activate voters for the 2020 Election. The conversation will give clarity to issues around voting logistics and help attendees make a plan to vote safely. Sign up
Missouri Voter Deadlines and Resources
- Sept. 22 — Local election offices in Missouri will start mailing absentee and mail-in ballots to voters.
- Oct. 7 — Voter Registration Deadline
- Oct. 21 — Deadline to request an absentee or mail-in ballot
- Oct. 27 — Last recommended date to send in mailed ballots via USPS
- Nov. 3 — Election Day
- Your Missouri absentee or mail-in ballot must be received by 7 p.m. to count
- Missouri polling places will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Voters who are still in line by 7 p.m. will still be allowed to vote.
Brittany Callan is the health and environment reporter at The Beacon and a Report for America corps member. You can reach Brittany at email@example.com. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.
Celisa Calacal is the assistant editor at The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.