Among the many adjustments Missourians have been forced to make in the wake of thecoronavirus pandemic is a new expectation of social distancing. To avoid catching or spreading the virus we’ve been asked to forgo gathering in groups and separate ourselves when standing in line. As we navigate the new normal, it was inevitable that the topic of voting would come up. A number of people expressed concerns about maintaining social distancing at the ballot box, and they looked to the Legislature to provide an alternative to in-person voting.
Senate Bill 631, which was passed by the Legislature and has now been signed by the governor, expands voting opportunities while protecting the security of the election process. The legislation, which expires Dec. 31, adds concern about COVID-19 to the list of circumstances that allow a voter to obtain an absentee ballot for elections held this year. The new law will also permit mail-in ballots to be cast in 2020.
Prior to passage of SB 631, a voter could request an absentee ballot for one of six specific reasons: absence from the election jurisdiction on Election Day, incapacity or confinement due to illness, religious beliefs or practices, employment as an election official, incarceration (in cases where voting qualifications are retained) or certified participation in an address confidentially program. Senate Bill 631 expands that list to include concerns related to COVID-19. For elections held in 2020, you may request an absentee ballot if you have contracted COVID-19 or are considered to be at-risk for the virus.
Missouri law requires absentee ballots to be accompanied by a sworn affidavit stating a reason why the voter can’t cast their ballot at the polls on Election Day. Typically, that’s done at the election office or in front of a notary public if the ballot will be mailed. In the past, the only exception to the notary requirement was for those incapacitated or confined by illness. This year, absentee ballots also won’t need to be notarized if the voter meets the COVID-19 “at-risk” criteria outlined in the bill.
The legislation defines at-risk individuals as those who are age 65 or older, live in a licensed long-term care facility, have chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma, have serious heart conditions, are immuno-compromised, have diabetes, liver disease or have a chronic kidney disease and are undergoing dialysis. If you can claim any one of these risk factors for COVID-19, you don’t need to have your absentee ballot notarized.
Senate Bill 631 also allows any qualified voter to request a mail-in ballot in 2020. Voters (or their guardians) may apply for mail-in ballots either by mail or in person at their county election authority up until the second Wednesday prior to an election. When submitting a mail-in ballot, the voter must declare that they have not voted by absentee ballot and will not attempt to cast another vote. Unlike absentee ballots, all mail-in ballots must be notarized. There are no exceptions for COVID-19 or any other reason. Mail-in ballots must be received by the election authority by the time polls are scheduled to close for in-person voting.
The new voting provisions included in SB 631 don’t go as far as some proponents would like, but they do provide additional options for those concerned about going to the polls during the coronavirus crisis. As he signed the bill into law, the governor praised the Legislature for providing increased ballot access while public health is at risk, but also expressed his commitment to ensuring the integrity of our elections. I agree with the governor. I don’t believe we’ll see a permanent move toward free-for-all mail-in ballots in this state, nor do I believe we should. But the provisions contained in SB 631 will provide some peace of mind for those who feel the risk of in-person voting is too great during the pandemic.
It is my great honor to represent the citizens of the 33rd Senatorial District. Although the Legislature has adjourned for 2020, I remain your senator throughout the year. If there’s anything that I can do to assist you, please feel free to contact my Capitol office at (573) 751-1882.