Secretary of State Jason Kander has made early voting a priority during his first few months in office, and gathered elections officials from throuthout the state to form an Early Voting Commission.
The 11-member bi-partisan commission has been meeting with attorneys and others who bring expertise to the table on voting matters, ultimately culminating in a list of four recommendations to create the most efficient, fair and secure way to allow eligible Missourians to cast a ballot before Election Day.
“We’re hopeful the commission’s recommendations to provide a convenient early-voting program, which would be fully funded by the state, will be a well-received proposal,” says Peggy McGaugh (R), Carroll County clerk and a member of the commission.
Jefferson County Clerk Wes Wagner (D), also a member of the commission, says Kander convened the commission in recognizing the importance of expanding voting opportunities to eligible Missourians, like those enjoyed by voters in 35 other states.
Rich Chrismer, St. Charles elections director and former legislator, says the four recommendations are meant to be presented as a whole, and not taken piece-meal. He’s hopeful legislators will craft a bill based on the recommendations, but admits it’s likely too late this session.
Chrismer says absentee voting just isn’t sufficient anymore in letting people participate in the voting process, pointing to examples such as the November 2012 election, when hundreds of Missourians didn’t get to vote because they worked for utility companies and had been deployed to the Northeast to help with restoration efforts after Hurricane Sandy.
Recommendation 1: Reform the current absentee ballot law to allow registered voters to cast absentee ballots by mail without needing to state an excuse.
The commission recommends removing the statutory provisions that prohibit registered voters from casting absentee ballots unless they meet one of five statutorily-required conditions. To ensure ballot security, the “no excuse” absentee system would preserve the requirements that voters request absentee ballots in writing from their local election authorities and that they obtain a notary seal or signature on their mail-in absentee ballot envelopes. However, the commission recommends retaining the exceptions presently in statute that waive notarization for military voters, permanently disabled individuals, and those voting absentee by mail as a result of incapacity due to illness or physical disability, including caregivers of incapacitated individuals.
In order to accommodate an expected increase in mail-in absentee ballots, the commission also recommends extending the allowed processing time for absentee ballots from five days preceding the election to seven days preceding the election. The costs of the expected increase should also be borne by the state, rather than the local election authorities.
Recommendation 2: Allow registered voters to cast early ballots on voting equipment at a central voting location prior to Election Day to replace current in-person absentee voting.
The commission recommends that each local election authority establish a central voting location, which may be the office of the county clerk or board of election commissioners. Registered voters of the jurisdiction will then be able to cast early ballots, in-person and for any reason, on electronic voting equipment at the central voting location. Permitting voters to cast early ballots on electronic voting equipment will eliminate the need for absentee envelopes and reduce processing time for the local election authority.
The commission also recommends that the early ballot process should emulate current election day procedures, including requiring registered voters to sign poll books rather than complete absentee ballot applications when casting an early ballot. However, local election authorities may utilize their office staff and shall update their voter rolls to reflect those who have already cast an early ballot to maintain secure voting procedures.
In order to implement early ballot voting, the commission recommends allowing local election authorities to test electronic voting equipment fourteen days prior to the early voting period since early ballot voters will be utilizing electronic voting equipment. Though the ballots will be immediately counted by the electronic voting equipment, the commission strongly recommends prohibiting local election authorities from tabulating the ballots until election night.
To avoid voter confusion and increase accessibility, the commission recommends commencing the in-person early voting period six weeks prior to the election to coincide with the current absentee ballot period. Should additional expenses arise, the costs of implementing early ballot voting at the central location for six weeks should be borne by the state, rather than the local election authorities.
Recommendation 3: Create satellite voting locations during November Presidential elections.
The commission recommends that, in addition to the central voting location, local election authorities may create additional satellite voting locations within the jurisdictions. However, for jurisdictions with more than 175,000 registered voters, local election authorities must create at least one additional satellite location during November Presidential elections. The costs of these satellite locations should be borne by the state to prevent additional burdens on local election authorities.
The commission recommends that the November Presidential election satellite locations be open for at least four hours a day for a minimum of 14 days, closing on the Wednesday prior to the election. During that timeframe, the local election authority must also keep the satellite location open for at least eight hours on one weekend day. For ballot security purposes, if an electronic voting machine is used at a satellite location, the memory card of each electronic voting machine and any corresponding paper ballots must be securely removed upon closing of the satellite location and stored securely in the central office of the local election authority. Throughout the satellite voting location period, local election authorities shall update their voter rolls to reflect those who have already cast an early ballot to maintain secure voting procedures.
Recommendation 4: Early voting lists should be kept confidential and should only be disclosed twice prior to the election.
Current Missouri law requires local election authorities to keep a list of all individuals that request absentee ballots and maintain the confidentiality of those lists, with stated exceptions. The commission recommends similar guidelines for early ballot voters, including maintaining the confidentiality of lists of registered voters that have voted by early ballot. Consistent with current law, only candidates or duly authorized representatives of a campaign committee, or any person with written authorization from a candidate, or any person that has cast an early ballot should be entitled to see these lists, but the commission recommends that the lists be disclosed only on the third Tuesday prior to the election and after 8 a.m. on the Friday prior to the election.