(The Center Square) – Until further notice, Missouri’s election laws that require mailed-in ballots be notarized remain in place.
U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes, noting the state’s early voting has been under way since Sept. 22, has issued a temporary order suspending his Oct. 9 ruling that found Missouri’s differing mail-in and absentee ballot rules to be unconstitutional.
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft requested Wimes grant the order while the state appeals his ruling. A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule on the appeal soon, although it is uncertain when.
Wimes on Saturday lifted his order requiring election authorities change the mail-in ballot application process in his ruling published Monday, but retained a prohibition on the state requiring “any ballot received through the mail be returned through the mail,” meaning mailed ballots could be returned in person or "through a relative within the second degree of consanguinity or affinity.”
Wimes said allowing voters to return ballots in person would not increase burdens and costs on election supervisors, "especially when weighed against the risk of total disenfranchisement of Missouri voters."
The ruling stems from a September federal lawsuit filed by the Organization for Black Struggle, St. Louis A. Philip Randolph Institute, Greater Kansas City A. Philip Randolph Institute, the National Council of Jewish Women and Missouri Faith Voices in the U.S. District Court's Western District of Missouri.
The suit claims "requiring mail-in ballots, but not absentee mail ballots, to be requested only by mail or in person and returned only by mail by close of polls on Election Day imposes a significant burden on Missouri voters' exercise of their fundamental right to vote, while advancing no legitimate state interest sufficiently weighty to justify this burden."
Missouri requires residents apply for non-absentee, mail-in ballots by Oct. 21. After voters receive ballots by mail and complete them, state law requires outer envelopes be notarized and returned by U.S. mail only no later than 7 p.m. Nov. 3.
Missouri is one of nine states nationwide that require a notary to vote absentee or by mail, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
In his Oct. 9 ruling, Wimes agreed the differing standards are unconstitutional, noting "any harm or cost to defendants to comply with the court's order are outweighed by the imminent and irreparable harm to be incurred by plaintiffs, and thus Missouri voters."
Ashcroft immediately appealed to the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals, claiming "Plaintiffs' own evidence shows Missouri's (local election authorities) lack the staff and resources to implement a new process midway through voting-by-mail.”
The suit is one of several challenges to Missouri election laws matriculating through courts as the 2020 campaign grinds into its final weeks.
The Missouri Supreme Court Friday denied voting rights advocates’ appeal of a lower court ruling upholding the state’s notarization requirement, stating fear of contracting COVID-19 is not the same as being debilitated by illness.
Missouri is one of nine states that require voters have a notary or witness signature to validate “absentee” mailed-in ballots.
The NAACP and the League of Women Voters sued, arguing voters who want to avoid contracting COVID-19 at the polls should be treated like voters who cannot vote in person because of “incapacity or confinement due to illness or physical disability.”
Another lawsuit seeking to streamline the state’s mail-in ballot process, filed in Cole County Circuit Court by Washington, D.C.-based American Women and three individual Missouri voters, was heard last week before Judge Dan Green, who is expected to rule as early as this week.