Community members are trying to help others overcome obstacles that stem from voting by mail. They are holding notary drives and Webster VOTES is offering to pay for postage for mail-in ballots.
Political science major Sarah Hill considers herself informed and active when it comes to voting. She is a Campus Election Engagement Project fellow and is also involved in WebsterVOTES.
However, when Hill tried to vote her freshman year, she did not complete the notary requirement. Her vote was not counted.
“I do feel comfortable sharing that because even someone who is informed can easily miss… one small subtext at the bottom of a form and then their vote, not count, and I think that’s problematic,” Hill said.
This year, people in the Webster Groves community – including at Webster University – are working to ensure everyone can have their vote count in the Nov. 3 election.
Beth Sturgeon became a notary two months ago to help people vote in the upcoming election. She said it was helpful for Missouri to offer mail-in ballot options during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Sturgeon added the process of voting through the mail was difficult for her to understand before she first began looking into it. She said, initially, she may not have known where to find a notary or whether she qualified for an absentee or a mail-in ballot.
“I think it’s really complex and I’ve really dedicated a lot of time to trying to figure it out,” Sturgeon said. “I don’t think the average voter who is trying to make ends meet right now in a global pandemic really has the bandwidth to figure it all out without some help.”
Sturgeon’s concerns regarding people being able to vote easily in the upcoming election led her to join a volunteer organization called STL Notary Coordination. The organization works to connect volunteers with businesses which are looking to host free notarizing events. On Oct. 1, STL Notary Coordination also launched a website that includes information on when and where people can find free notarizing events.
One of the institutions in Webster Groves that are hosting free notarizing events is the Webster Groves Presbyterian Church. Congregation member Janice Seele said the church initially became involved because the congregation’s advocacy team supported the for Medicaid expansion during the Aug. 4 election. However, Seele said the church noticed people were struggling to figure out how to find notaries and vote by mail.
“You can’t advocate without allowing votes to happen,” Seele said. “We want to make it possible for everyone to be able to cast a ballot because changing policies that affect those who are oppressed and less fortunate is extremely important.”
Seele said this desire to have everyone’s vote count is why the congregation is offering free notarization services for the Nov. 3 election. The events will be held every Sunday in October from noon to 3:00 p.m.
At Webster University, WebsterVOTES put out a call for notaries on Sept. 9. Hill said it was important to remove any obstacles students might face when it comes to voting. Finding free notarization services for students was also important because Missouri does not require free notarization services for mail-in ballots, according to Hill.
“Hypothetically, you could be charged and that’s not against the law. So not great,” Hill said. “But we have fortunately opportunities at Webster where students don’t have to worry about that.”
Hill said students who are looking for a notary could reach out to Jennifer Stewart, director of student engagement. In the coming weeks, students looking for a notary can also reach out to Hill. She is in the final stages of becoming an official notary.
Another obstacle WebsterVOTES is working to help students overcome involves postage. Hill explained many students are not used to sending physical letters anymore, and this could make it more difficult for college voters to find all the resources needed to vote by mail. To ensure voters do not face this issue, WebsterVOTES is offering to pay for all postage.
“In being able to purchase those stamps, it’s obviously not a whole lot of money, but it ends one more barrier standing in the way of students getting their vote in,” Hill said.
The Webster Groves Presbyterian Church is also working to help voters with more than just the notary requirement. Seele said volunteers will also go over the envelopes with voters to ensure everything is filled out correctly.
According to Seele, many of the volunteers the church has received became notaries specifically to help others vote.
Jill Anderson is one such person. Anderson felt the process for voting by mail is more complicated than it should be – especially given the ongoing pandemic. Due to this frustration, she became a notary to help people vote in the Aug. 4 election.
“The more people vote by mail, even though it’s an extra step with getting a notary, they’re not standing in line at their polling place on an election day. That’s fewer exposures for the poll workers,” Anderson said.
Anderson volunteered as a notary at Ivory Crockett park on Oct. 3 and she is planning to volunteer at one of Webster Groves Presbyterian Church’s upcoming events. She also tried to sign up to volunteer at a local business but found all of the slots had been filled. Anderson said she was happy to see so many notaries getting involved.
Working with STL Notary Coordination, Sturgeon saw the enthusiasm from notaries wanting to help people vote by mail first-hand. She said the first time she sent out a sign-up form for notaries to volunteer at local businesses, nearly all the slots were filled in less than a day.
“People are just fired up ready to help their neighbors because we are in this pandemic together and it’s such an important election,” Sturgeon said. “I just think everybody is trying to do whatever they can to make sure that this election is fair and accessible.”
Webster Groves Presbyterian Church also had more people offering to notarize than volunteer shifts available, according to Seele. Besides making voting accessible, Seele said her church is also working to ensure voting is safe for everyone. All notarization events will be held outside, volunteers and voters have to wear masks, hand sanitizer and sanitized pens will be available and voters are encouraged to bring their own pens.
While there are restrictions on gatherings at Webster University – making notarizing events difficult to organize – Hill encouraged students to have conversations about how friends and family plan to vote. She also said students could send questions to email@example.com or on WebsterVOTES’ social media pages.
“I’ve been doing on the stories ‘what questions do you have about voting’ or sometimes when I have different graphics to post, if people want to comment questions on those, if they prompt questions, totally great. We want to meet people where they are and whatever is most comfortable for them,” Hill said.
Hill said one thing people should keep in mind is to get ballots in as early as possible. Anderson also encouraged people to vote early.
“All the people working to make the election happen are working so hard and the more we can get ballots returned now in early October, the better off we’ll be come Nov. 3 in terms of time crunch,” Anderson said.
For Sturgeon, voting by mail would be a good option for people to take in years without a global pandemic as well. She felt voting by mail takes away the stress voters and election officials might feel on election day.
“So for me, voting by mail I could take the time to look at my ballot and really research everything and I feel safe putting it in the mail,” Sturgeon said.
In the end, Hill said – regardless of how people cast their ballots – it is important people vote on Nov. 3. She said this election is about more than deciding who the next president will be. Voters will also vote for people who directly impact where they live.
“I’m one of those people. Well, first of all, that believes democracy is not a spectator sport. So if you think that things should change, you should be a part of the process. And if you don’t like the way the process works, then you should find a way to get involved…” Hill said. “There’s always a way to get your voice heard. And the ballot box is one of the best ways to do it. And hopefully with WebsterVOTES, we’re able to make it easier and more accessible for students to get there.”
Seele also highlighted the importance of students voting. She said voting is the best tool people have to make change.
“If somebody doesn’t vote and yet protests it – that does no good. You have to vote,” Seele said. “Even if you think your vote doesn’t count, believe that it does and make every attempt to vote somehow.”