For all the talk of big changes, Missourians head to the polls Tuesday in an election that will look more like the past than the future.
Gone is the expanded mail-in voting that the Legislature authorized on a temporary basis because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People were so confused,” said Mary Baack-Garvey, the Buchanan County clerk. “Mail-in being gone alleviates a lot of the confusion.”
For now, elections revert back to the way they operated prior to 2020. But more changes loom on the horizon — no-excuse absentee voting and another stab at photo identification requirements in Missouri, plus a sweeping elections bill that will be debated at the federal level.
In Missouri, State Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, is sponsoring legislation that seeks to strike a balance between expanded access and enhanced security. Key provisions of Senate Bill 282 include no-excuse absentee voting, a photo ID requirement and an emphasis on election equipment that produces paper ballots.
Hegeman, the former chief elections official in Andrew County, wants to allow no-excuse absentee voting up to three weeks before an election. It would have to be done in person, unlike for-cause absentee ballots for reasons such as being out of town or having a disability. Some of those ballots can be mailed prior to Election Day.
“People are ready for early voting,” Hegeman said. “This is a way to do it in a secure, safe fashion to make sure the integrity of elections are maintained.”
In committee, SB 282 gained the support of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities as well both Democratic and Republican election officials in various counties. One of them, Baack-Garvey in Buchanan County, said no-excuse absentee voting reduces lines at polling sites and benefits older Missourians who won’t have to worry about uncertain weather on Election Day.
“Especially in colder months, in November, if they have a nice day they can come out and get that ballot done earlier,” she said. “It alleviates them possibly lying to us that they’re actually going to be out of town or not.”
Hegeman’s bill awaits a final Senate vote, and some of its provisions were tacked to a similar measure, House Bill 738. It has its share of critics, including the AARP and the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, an organization that has fought a proposed photo ID requirement for a number of years.
“It only gives a nod to no-excuse absentee voting,” said Denise Lieberman, director and general counsel of the Voter Protection Coalition. “It limits our most vulnerable voters from taking advantage.”
Lieberman takes issue with the bill’s failure to expand mail-in voting and with the decision to pursue a photo ID requirement. She said those two elements, if they become law, will disenfranchise minorities and older voters.
“We see a lot of common themes,” she said. “We have definitely seen an uptick in bills that would make it more difficult for Missouri’s voters.”
In 2016, Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed lawmakers to move forward with a voter ID law. It resulted in a law that directed voters without a photo ID to sign a sworn affidavit, but the Missouri Supreme Court struck it down last year.
Hegeman’s bill eliminates the requirement to sign an affidavit and would allow a voter without a photo ID to submit a provisional ballot.
“A photo ID is a very secure way of allowing people to vote,” he said. “Of course, people can get a photo ID, free of charge, from a license bureau.”
Baack-Garvey estimates that 9-in-10 voters already show a driver’s license at the voting site. She said the big issue is the back and forth that creates a sense of confusion.
“It was here, it passed and then it went back to the courts,” she said. “I wish we could just have it or not have it.”
It remains to be seen whether any common ground is in the works on elections legislation, an issue that tends to be viewed through the absolutist prism of voter suppression on one end and election security on the other.
Is there any room in between? Maybe no-excuse absentee voting is a start. “Many voters have voted absentee for many years,” Hegeman said, “and they’ve always happened to be out of the district at election time. I think it’s time to do away with the charade.”