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With high-stakes elections set for later this year, Missouri is a part of a nationwide sprint to alter the way votes are cast and counted. Absentee voting, photo ID, voter roll maintenance and how counties receive funding are all topics under consideration in the 2022 session.
Elections have been top of mind for lawmakers since 2000, when races for many seats, including the U.S. presidency, were close and highly polarized, and since 2020, when the pandemic raised concerns about the safety of in-person voting. Since then, some elected officials have been seeking ways to expand access to the ballot box, while others are calling for more restrictions.
In Missouri, Republicans in the legislature have introduced bills to put photo identification requirements in place and give the secretary of state’s office more oversight over voter rolls and election administration.
Democrats, who are outnumbered in the House and Senate, have objected to many of the GOP pieces of election legislation, saying they are designed to suppress voting.
“There is not a widespread voter fraud issue in this state,” Rep. David Tyson Smith, D- Columbia, said during floor debate on a photo ID bill earlier this month. “That’s not an issue in Missouri…We’ve heard that as far as the data, does it suppress the vote? There have been studies that suggest that it does.”
For their part, Democrats and county clerks across the state are pushing for no-excuse absentee voting in the run-up to Election Day.
With the session just past its midway point, there is plenty of time for legislation to be amended or changed. Of the bills related to elections, most share similar language or aim to achieve similar goals. Some seek to change merely one aspect of the state’s elections, while others propose more sweeping alterations.
So far, here are the big themes being watched closely by election clerks and voting advocates around Kansas City and statewide. Full lists of bills referred to the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee and the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee are available online.
Will Missouri allow no-excuse absentee voting?
Missouri is one of the most restrictive states in which to cast a ballot. Mail-in voting is not an option and absentee ballots are only available to voters who provide an approved reason for why they cannot vote in person on Election Day, such as illness or travel.
Absentee voting has been a topic of conversation surrounding elections since 2020, when, for the first time, all Missourians were allowed to vote absentee because of the coronavirus.
The Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities (MACCEA), a group made up of county election officials, supports lifting some restrictions so that voters could cast absentee ballots in person for a short period before Election Day, according to Shane Schoeller, the current Greene County clerk and president of MACCEA.
Many Republicans in the legislature oppose voting before Election Day. But earlier in the session some expressed support for a bill introduced by GOP Rep. Peggy McGaugh of Carrollton that would have allowed no-excuse voting in limited form. The no-excuse provision has since been removed from McGaugh’s bill in order to advance other provisions. But she told The Beacon she hopes the change to allow no-excuse voting can be returned to the bill if the Senate takes it up.
McGaugh, who has more than 30 years of experience in the Carroll County clerk’s office running elections, said no-excuse absentee voting is a reasonable change and not much different from voting in person on Election Day.
McGaugh argues that no-excuse absentee voting will keep people from lying to election authorities about why they need to vote before Election Day, something she says is commonplace, as absentee voters are required to cite a reason.
“Not only does the voter have to ‘story’ to the election authority, the election authority then has to take this story at full value,” McGaugh said. “So I mean, it’s just silly… let’s make it legal for us to do what we’re already doing.”
A bill by Harrisonville Sen. Rick Brattin, a Republican, would make it illegal to send an absentee ballot to someone who did not specifically request one.
Voter photo ID up for debate again
In an attempt to move forward with no-excuse absentee voting, McGaugh sought to combine the change with provisions to plainly require approved photo identification.
Her bill, along with others that have been filed, would prevent a voter from being able to cast a provisional ballot under penalty of perjury if they do not have an official form of photo identification required by state law. Instead, voters would have to fill out an affidavit and return to the polling place on Election Day with the proper ID.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, other bills filed in Missouri would remove language requiring the secretary of state’s office to advertise forms of identification needed to vote, or even post the voter ID information on the websites of the secretary or state and governor.
McGaugh says the new photo identification provisions should help dissipate fears that increased use of absentee ballots would lead to voter fraud.
“Again, if you’re standing there at the counter of the election authority, and all you want is access to your ballot that you should be able to have, then I don’t see how that turns into any fraud at all,” she said.
Who gets to oversee voter rolls?
Many of the bills introduced would allow increased oversight over counties by the secretary of state’s office when it comes to managing their voter rolls.
Counties are legally required to remove the names of people who have moved or died from their rolls. The proposed new provisions would allow the secretary of state’s office to conduct an audit at the office’s discretion to ensure accuracy.
The secretary’s office can determine what changes need to be made and gives counties 30 days to make such changes or funding can be withheld, according to legislative proposals.
Brattin’s bill would allow any registered voter to request an audit of election results at any time up to the official certification of election results. A requesting voter would need to present signatures from 5% of the jurisdiction’s registered voters.
If the signatures are valid, the secretary of state’s office may order an audit, although the bill does not specify who would perform or pay for the audit.
Schoeller said MACCEA has raised concerns over the administrative workload that many county clerks face. He suggested they be given 90 days to adjust their methods.
“The original provision probably didn’t take into account the challenges that local election officials can have,” Schoeller said. In smaller offices, he added, “it can be very challenging to keep everything up to date.”
Some provisions would also prevent counties from accessing outside grant money to help fund their election administration over concerns of potential biases. Schoeller said he can see the concern, but added that the state took advantage of outside funds in 2020 after federal assistance for election administration dried up.
“Myself, Secretary [of state Jay] Ashcroft and a number of election officials across the state did accept that funding, because we were trying to make sure that we administered elections well. And so what I tried to emphasize to them is, if we’re properly funded, we don’t have any need to accept any grant funding like that,” Schoeller said.
“That’s the important part of this conversation, is that we need to make sure the federal and state are paying their fair share,” he added. “And I don’t say that with any negativity. It’s just a reality that we face here at the local level.”
Concern over security
Some bills would also phase out the use of touch-screen voting machines. Currently, such machines are used sparingly across the state, but proposed election legislation would ensure that these machines are no longer used after Jan. 1, 2024, except for voters with disabilities. They would also ensure that all machines are “air gapped” and not connected to the internet.
McGaugh’s bill would specify that beginning Jan. 1, 2024, paper ballots would be the only form used for elections, aside from limited touch-screen machine use for voters with disabilities.
Chris Hershey, Platte County’s clerk, told The Beacon he has some concerns about only voters with disabilities being able to use touch-screen machines.
“I know I don’t want to try to verify if someone’s disabled and I sure don’t want my election judges trying to determine if someone’s disabled,” he said.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, SB 670, would also allow the secretary of state’s office to perform cybersecurity assessments, although the legislation does not detail what the assessment would consist of. If counties do not allow the assessment, the secretary of state’s office could withhold funding. The office could also require cybersecurity assessment of vendor systems and machines.
Brattin’s bill would also add unique identifiers to all ballots “for the purpose of preventing ballots from being copied or harvested.”
While Democrats say that many of the measures are designed to make it harder to vote, under the guise of diminishing the risk of voter fraud, McGaugh told The Beacon that the purpose of many of the bills is to make a strong law even better.
“So, you know, the question is, why are we doing a 78-page bill if we had no fraud?,” she said. “So that’s a good question. However, what we’re doing is tightening up the great plan and the great election law that we have, and making it easier to vote and harder to cheat, period.”
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