November 24, 2020

Missouri sees increase in nontraditional voting

Missouri offered expanded voting options Nov. 3 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The law expanding voting options, however, is set to expire at the end of this year.

Webster student Zia Clements cast her ballot in-person every time she has gone to vote since turning 18. In the August election, however, Clements decided to try voting by mail. She then opted to vote by mail for the Nov. 3 general election.

“I live with a family member who is immunocompromised and he’s who I usually go with in person to vote,” Clements said. “We both decided like we would feel safer doing mail-in or absentee ballots.”

Over 723,058 Missourians cast their ballots for the Nov. 3 election through absentee or mail-in options. According to the Associated Press, that number is 251.1% of the absentee votes cast in the 2016 general election.

The St. Louis County Board of Elections’ Democratic Director of Elections Eric Fey said over 170,000 people voted by absentee or mail-in for the 2020 general election. That number rose from roughly 61,000 absentee voters in the 2016 general election.

“I’ve told other people it is almost like running two elections. You’re running kind of a regular election day polling place election and then you’re running a mail election,” Fey said.

According to Fey, the increase was due in part to the Missouri Legislature passing a law this year to expand voting options in the wake of COVID-19. He said he heard from Missourians who were worried about contracting COVID-19 while waiting in lines on Election Day. Fey also said many of the people who voted absentee in-person were wary of the United States Postal Service.

“I think just in general there is a sentiment amongst the electorate this year that they want to get it done and get it done early to make sure that their vote gets counted,” Fey said. “So there is a lot of trepidation this year it seems like.”

For Clements, offering expanded voting options was important to make sure everyone who wanted to vote in this election would be able to.

“If [going to the polls in person] was the only choice, I would do it,” Clements said. “I can tell you that my family probably wouldn’t and I can’t blame them at all because COVID is a serious health crisis and it would definitely impact my family members if they were to get it.”

Clements became a notary over the summer to help others vote by mail-in or absentee. On Oct. 26, she notarized ballots at an Absen“tea” and notary table event hosted by Delta Phi Epsilon and WebsterVOTES.

“It was a weird dichotomy because I felt personally, like a little bit chills because of [Amy Coney Barret’s confirmation],” Clements said, “but then I had so many people coming up and asking for their ballot to be notarized, asking how to vote in person, just telling us they have already voted and that gave me great hope.”

Because the event was held eight days before the general election, Clements said only a handful of people needed their ballots notarized. Sarah Hill, a member of WebsterVOTES, said some of the students who stopped by the event were either away from home on Election Day or concerned about COVID-19.

Hill said Missouri should have made it illegal for notaries to charge for mail-in ballots. However, she added she was happy the law did expand voting options – especially during COVID-19.

“Expanding these opportunities were necessary to make sure that individuals who didn’t feel comfortable or were very much at risk of covid can vote early, can vote mail in, they can vote in a safe and secure way,” Hill said.

Missourians who took advantage of expanded absentee and mail-in voting options in the June and August elections were primarily people 60 or older, according to Fey. Like Hill, he agreed Missouri could take steps to improve.

Fey is part of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities. He said the association asked the legislature to offer no-excuse absentee voting even before the pandemic began. Fey believed this would help ease any confusion voters may have about the different voting options.

“[B]ut I think that overall, the law that was passed this year did and will help us get through these elections,” Fey said.

However, the law is set to expire at the end of the year. Fey said the future of mail-in voting will be influenced by the Nov. 3 election. He said people will be watching to see if the election runs smoothly or if there are major issues.

“I think there will be no matter what a gradual transition toward [mail-in voting],” Fey said, “but the pace of that transition like I said will depend on the outcome of the election.”

Clements said she plans on voting in-person again once the pandemic is under control. She said she is still hesitant about mail-in voting and having a large number of ballots be rejected.

In the future, Hill hopes elections will continue to be made accessible for every voter.

“Ultimately, good leadership is not about who is going to elect you,” Hill said. “It’s about making sure that every single person has an equal opportunity to share their voice and to share their vote.”

While Clements was concerned about how many mail-in ballots would be rejected, she hopes Missouri will continue to offer early voting options. She said during years without a pandemic, people would still benefit from an early voting option.

“It means more people will vote and who doesn’t want more people to vote in our democracy – you know our elections?” Clements said. “The more people vote the more I think our voices are heard.”

 

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