Voters, local election officials working to navigate Missouri’s new voting law

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(Missouri Independent) – The first time Maureen Loyacono voted was in 1960 when she cast a ballot for John F. Kennedy.

“And I’ve never missed an election since,” said Loyacono, 84, a Kansas City resident who also served as a poll worker for 40 years.  

But she’s worried this might be the first election where her vote won’t be counted. 

For the past two years, she’s been trying to update her expired driver’s license. After waiting for hours at her local license office with her daughter, they’ve been told she doesn’t have all the documents she needs – including a marriage certificate from 1960 that shows she changed her name. 

With a new state law that went into effect on Aug. 28, Loyacono won’t be able to cast a ballot at the polls the way she’s always done without a current Missouri driver’s license, a Missouri non-driver’s license, military photo identification, or a passport. 

She could cast a provisional ballot on Election Day, which would mean a longer wait for her at the polls. With this kind of ballot, her vote would only count if election authorities deem that her signature on the ballot matches previous signatures in their records. 

While Loyacono has vowed never to miss a single election, she said some of the other residents at her senior living home have told her they’re not going to vote. 

“When it gets difficult, they just think it’s too much trouble,” she said. “I’m not one of those people.”

Several election authorities told The Independent that they’re concerned seniors like Loyacono — as well as college students and many other voters who don’t have the necessary identification — could be discouraged from voting in November. 

Election officials are strongly urging these voters to cast a “blue provisional ballot,” a ballot for registered voters who don’t have the required identification. 

“I will be the first to admit that this is not ideal,” said Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon, whose county includes the University of Missouri’s flagship campus. “But I would much rather at least let people know that this blue provisional ballot is an avenue to cast a ballot — because the alternative is they can’t vote.”

It not only takes longer for a voter to cast a blue provisional ballot on Election Day, but it also takes longer for counties to count them. One of the biggest challenges election authorities will likely face on Election Night is a surge in blue provisional ballots, Lennon said. If a race is close, verifying these ballots could delay election results for several days. 

Aside from the new identification requirement, the new wide-ranging election law approved by Missouri legislators earlier this year has also caused confusion about who can legally help people register to vote or cast absentee ballots. 

“I keep saying if I’m confused, imagine how confused other people are who haven’t been looking at this very much,” said Jay Hardenbrook, AARP Missouri advocacy director.

If someone registers more than 10 people to vote, they must fill out a form on the Missouri Secretary of State’s website or could face possible criminal penalties. And 10 or more absentee ballots from the same address — such as a nursing home or community center — requires that election authorities send a team to witness and collect the ballots. 

While election authorities and advocates are rushing to educate voters about the new law and identification requirements, two lawsuits have been filed to challenge their constitutionality and block their implementation before the Nov. 8 statewide election.  

Options for seniors without IDs

Hardenbrook has already fielded calls from many seniors statewide who are confused about how they’ll be able to vote if they don’t have the proper identification. Seniors often have expired driver’s licenses and have little reason to update them, he said. 

“The DMV offices are not in places that are really accessible for people who don’t drive anymore,” Hardenbrook said, “especially if you don’t have family close by or maybe don’t have close family at all anymore.”

According to the Secretary of State’s election hotline (1-800-669-8683), the state is not required by the new law to facilitate home visits for people who can’t go to the DMV. 

However, there is also a state law that allows people who are disabled or homebound to get on their local county’s permanent disability absentee voter list. 

Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller said being unable to stand in long lines is a common reason people apply for permanent absentee voting. 

To get on the list, voters must complete and sign a form that comes from their local election authority. 

Similar to other absentee voting applications, it does not require the applicants to submit identification. The election authorities match it with the voters’ signatures from their voter registration forms. But unlike other forms of absentee voting, these voters don’t have to get their ballots notarized.

‘Deemed cast’ 

While this permanent absentee voting list helps get more people voting, another new change this year increases the chances their ballots won’t be counted. 

provision in the new law states that once the election authority receives an absentee ballot from the mail carrier, it is “deemed cast.” 

In the November 2020 election, Lincoln County Clerk Crystal Hall said a “handful” of people mailed in their absentee ballots and forgot to sign the outside of the envelope. Without that signature, the ballot inside the envelope doesn’t count. 

Although counties try to make it obvious that the envelope signature is required, a lot of people miss it, she said.

“You could print it the size of a building, and there’ll still be some that miss it,” Hall said. “We all get distracted for whatever reason.”

During the last general election, Hall personally went to the home of a homebound woman to have her sign the envelope so her vote would count. Schoeller and Lennon said they also have teams that reach out to voters who forget this step.

But with the new law, if a person forgot to sign or complete part of the envelope, then the ballot will not be counted, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Election authorities are no longer permitted to contact the voter to allow them to correct the envelope.

“In the new law, the wording says once it’s received, it’s deemed cast,” said JoDonn Chaney, spokesman for the Secretary of State. “So in other words, it’s final.”

While voting absentee is a way to be able to cast a ballot without having to go out and get an ID, Lennon said people need to be “extra careful” that they’re filling it out completely.

“If somebody doesn’t fill up the envelope correctly, that’s their one shot at getting their ballot to count,” she said.

However Kara Clark Summers, president of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, said not everyone within the association agrees with that interpretation.

At the association’s conference earlier this month, election authorities discussed differing legal opinions on that provision, she said. While the law says the ballot itself cannot be changed, Summers said it doesn’t specifically say anything about the envelope. 

“Of that law, I know the intent was that nobody would be reaching back out to people,” said Summers, who also serves as clerk for Cape Girardeau County. “But I don’t feel that that’s what the law says. That’s why I would like an opinion on that matter, just to make sure that we’re being consistent and following the law.”

Surge in provisional ballots

In the first weeks of the fall semester, there are many voter registration drives on college campuses, Lennon said. Students can use their college photo IDs, out-of-state driver’s licenses or other forms of “personal identification” to register to vote. 

But those forms of identification won’t work for them to cast a ballot in November. Their signatures on the registration forms will, however. 

Both Schoeller and Lennon said they’re urging college students without the necessary voting identification to vote with a blue provisional ballot.

Provisional ballots are verified the same way as absentee ballots –  with a signature match, Schoeller said. 

“We keep all iterations of signatures as people fill out new registration forms or changes of address,” Lennon said. “We have all of those on file. So we have multiple options for their signatures.”

In the 2020 election, 920 blue provisional ballots were cast statewide, according to Secretary of State records. And out of those, 40 weren’t counted because the signatures didn’t match. 

While the state is offering free non-driver’s licenses for voting, Lennon said she’s not encouraging students with out-of-state driver’s licenses to get them. 

“Because if they do, it will invalidate their driving privileges,” she said. 

One more potential cause for confusion is that blue provisional ballots can only be cast on Election Day – not during the two weeks of no-excuse absentee voting that the new law established. 

These changes hinge on two lawsuits filed by League of Women Voters of Missouri and Missouri NAACP which are attempting to get the court to block the implementation of the new law. 

One lawsuit argues that the new law requiring Missourians to present a government-issued photo ID to vote is unconstitutional.

The other lawsuit claims that the law violates the right to core political speech by curtailing voter engagement.

Summers and other election officials are closely watching these cases. 

In 2018, a court decision came down two weeks before the November election halting a voter ID constitutional amendment that was enacted a year earlier. Summers remembers having to quickly call a big meeting with all her election judges to retrain them on the law, as well as get out new information to her voters. 

She anticipates that decisions on the lawsuits could be decided right up before absentee voting begins.  

“It is frustrating as election officials,” she said, “because we’re trying to prepare and get the message out. What if we get this message out and then the law changes again? I know it’s frustrating for our voters, but it’s frustrating for us too.”

Laura Loyacono, a Democratic committeewoman for Ward 22 in Kansas City, is trying to help not only her mother, Maureen, but all city voters find a pathway to vote in November. Although she’s been following the new law changes closely, she said she even struggles to understand them.

“My mother’s very sharp,” said Laura Loyacono, noting that her mother is a retired civics teacher. “But the rules keep changing. If you’re not monitoring the activities of the Missouri legislature or what the Secretary of State is doing, you can’t interpret what’s happening. You don’t understand how that relates to you.”

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Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice, and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as a senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.