FILE - Supreme Court of Missouri, Missouri, Virus Outbreak Court Transparency

In this June 15, 2020, photo provided by the Supreme Court of Missouri, Supreme Court Clerk Betsy AuBuchon, left, and Chief Justice George W. Draper III watch remote arguments from a video monitor stacked on boxes in the state Supreme Court chambers in Jefferson City, Mo. The chief justice was the only judge in the courtroom. The other six judges and the two attorneys arguing the case all appeared using remote technology because of coronavirus precautions.

(The Center Square) — The Missouri Supreme Court is expected to soon issue a verdict in voting rights advocates’ appeal of a lower court ruling upholding the state’s requirement that absentee ballots be notarized to be legal.

Attorneys for voting rights groups Tuesday urged the court to ease the notary requirement for state residents concerned about COVID-19 exposure at the polls by allowing them to vote remotely without notarizing their ballots.

“Count all ballots this election regardless of notarization,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Sophia Lakin said during Tuesday’s hearing.

Missouri is one of nine states that require voters have a notary or witness signature to validate “absentee” mailed-in ballots.

During the last day of the 2020 legislative session in May, in a compromise, Missouri lawmakers removed the photo ID requirement and agreed to relax absentee voting laws by permitting anyone to cast a mail-in ballot as if the envelope is notarized.

Lawmakers exempted “at-risk” residents – those 65 and older, living in a long-term care facility or with existing health issues – to vote absentee without having ballot envelopes notarized.

Absentee voting in Missouri began Sept. 22. Voters have until Oct. 27 to request a mail-in ballot.

According to the Secretary of State Office’s Division of Elections (DOE), as of Monday more than 364,000 absentee ballots had been requested, exceeding the 305,000 requested in the 2016 general election. 

In April, the Missouri NAACP, ACLU, League of Women Voters and three individual registered voters sued the state in Cole County Circuit. 

The suit maintains Missouri, its Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and others are enforcing an unconstitutional restraint on people’s right to vote during a pandemic by imposing the notarization requirement.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem dismissed the suit, ruling evidence shows election authorities provided “a safe voting experience” during the August primary and “will continue to do so in the upcoming general election.” 

Beetem said the notarization requirements did not impose a substantial or severe burden on the right to vote, noting 544 ballots were rejected during the August primary for failure to have the envelope notarized.

In their 128-page brief filed Sept. 30, attorneys for the plaintiffs argue Beetem’s ruling should be overturned because it makes exercising a constitutional right potentially dangerous for peoples’ health and that few Missourians have easy access to notaries.

“During this health crisis, the law doesn’t do enough to protect Missourians’ right to vote,” ACLU’s Lakin argued Tuesday. “Voters are saddled with a notary requirement that forces them to choose between risking their health, and those of their loved ones, and their right to vote.” 

In support of plaintiffs, seven Missouri doctors specializing in epidemiology warned in an accompanying brief that polling sites “are particularly susceptible to virus transmission” and that in-person notarizations “undermine the benefits of absentee voting” by requiring people to come into close contact.

The state’s response, a 121-page brief penned by State Solicitor General John Sauer maintains the ruling needs to be upheld to avoid confusion and that notarization deters fraud. He dismissed claims that many don’t have access to notaries. 

“There are 44,000 notaries in the state of Missouri available to notarize absentee ballots,” Sauer said. “And there are hundreds of notaries in the secretary of state’s volunteer program.”

He said invalidating the notary requirement would require reprinting absentee and mail-in ballot envelopes, creating additional costs and confusion in the final weeks of a general election campaign.

Untrue, Lakin countered. 

“No voters will be subjected to different standards here. All voters would exercise their fundamental right under the same standard: having their ballots counted regardless of notarization,” she said.