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Opinion: State's approach to mail-in ballots protects voter and vote

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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it grew more serious by the hour, a consensus rapidly emerged that state and local governmental leaders could help “flatten the curve” by issuing stay-at-home orders or shelter-in-place orders. While there has been some disagreement surrounding the implementation of these orders, and how and when they should be lifted, few would dispute the potential impact such policies can have on voter participation and election administration. As long as there is the potential for the disease to spread, and the potential to respond with stay-at-home orders, election authorities are duty bound to address potential complications by developing strategies and adopting best practices known at the time.

Currently, Missouri law requires in-person voting on Election Day for most voters, and has a limited number of exceptions that allow a voter to vote before then. I strongly believe this should continue to be the emphasis of state policy. There is simply too much potential for voter intimidation and other types of fraud in all mail-ballot elections. But, as county clerk, I must also carefully consider the plight of voters who are in high-risk categories. Many of these voters are concerned about their health and wonder whether they should comply with the spirit of a stay-at-home order or ignore the dangers of public exposure in order to exercise their right to vote. While there are many potential solutions to this dilemma, two solutions that make the most sense are allowing absentee voting for persons in high-risk categories, and allowing voters to proactively request a mail ballot. Both of those options became reality for the 2020 elections when Gov. Mike Parson signed Senate Bill 631.

Before SB 631, the Missouri law regulating absentee voting allowed six “excuses,” none of which directly addressed the issue of pandemics. Excuse No. 2 comes closest and allows voters to cast an absentee ballot if they can claim "incapacity or confinement due to illness or physical disability, including a person who is primarily responsible for the physical care of a person who is incapacitated or confined due to illness or disability."

To provide greater clarity, and avoid new avenues for voter fraud, the legislature passed two provisions in SB 631. The first provision, for 2020 only, allows all voters the opportunity to vote by mail. Mail ballots will only be sent to voters requesting one be sent, and the ballot envelope returning those ballots must be notarized. The notary requirement aids in the proper identification of voters, no different than Election Day identification, in order to help deter fraudulent ballots. The second provision creates a new seventh absentee voting excuse for 2020 only that applies to any voter who has already contracted COVID-19 or is in a high-risk category to contract the virus. Any voter that uses the seventh excuse to vote absentee can do it in the privacy of their home to protect themselves and others from unnecessary and avoidable exposure. I am pleased Gov. Parson signed this bill into law to protect both the integrity of our elections and the health of voters in August and November.

In addition to these law changes, we have taken steps locally to protect both election judges and voters from the potential for infection. Polling places are supplied with resources to disinfect hard surfaces, including the pens and styli used to cast ballots. We have also supplied election judges with masks, and each polling location will have plexiglass sneeze guards and social distancing instructions and markers. I am grateful to Missouri’s Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft for his leadership in helping to deliver many of these supplies to county clerks and local election authorities around the state.

We live in a nation where the gears of change can sometimes seem to turn slowly, and that makes it easy for people of strong opinion to grow frustrated with the system. It is not a perfect system – there is always room for improvement. But two of the truly remarkable tendencies of our form of government are its ability to weather difficulties like the COVID-19 pandemic and its ability to consistently chart a safe course between the twin perils of inaction and overreaction. SB 631, and the other measures Missouri election authorities have taken at the local level, upholds the best of that tradition by protecting both the voter and the vote. Whatever their political persuasion, I hope these efforts in August and November will help every voter to fully exercise the right so many Americans have defended by giving the last full measure of devotion.

Shane Schoeller is the Greene County clerk. He can be reached at sschoeller@greenecountymo.gov.

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