JEFFERSON CITY— The state’s early voting law merely requires local officials to plan for, not implement, the practice, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan heard arguments on the lawsuit filed by the city of St. Louis and some Democratic lawmakers last week. They sued Republican Secretary of State Matt Blunt, seeking a court order allowing an early voting period before the Nov. 2 general election.
The lawsuit contended a 2002 law requires advance voting for general elections. Supporters of advance voting believe it would make voting more convenient, thus encouraging more people to vote.
If the lawsuit had succeeded, Missourians could have voted for president, governor and other officials between Oct. 19-27. Missourians currently can vote absentee beginning six weeks before an election, but only if they will be unable to vote in person on election day.
Blunt, the Republican nominee for governor running against Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill, has said Missouri law does not permit a general early voting period.
State attorneys argued last week that the law’s language is clear in requiring only a plan.
Assistant Attorney General Paul Wilson said a review of earlier versions of the legislation showed that while lawmakers originally planned to allow early voting, they decided instead to require only that a plan be drawn.
Callahan’s ruling followed that interpretation, saying that while legislators at one point planned to begin early voting, the final version of the bill is clear.
“It appears that earlier efforts to authorize advance voting were abandoned in exchange for mere planning,” Callahan wrote. “This history makes clear that the bill as enacted merely requires local election authorities to submit plans for an advance voting process so that the General Assembly could implement it later if it chose to do so.”
The city of St. Louis and residents who filed the suit, however, said the law should not have required a plan if there was no intent to implement it, and noted the language does not say that legislators must do anything further for early voting to begin.
Not surprisingly, Republicans cheered the ruling.
“Judge Callahan stood up for voters throughout Missouri who would not have been given the special voting privileges sought by the mayor of St. Louis and his partisan political allies,” Spence Jackson, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said.
Robert Heggie, an attorney for the individuals who filed suit, said he was considering whether to appeal.
“We feel this is really a loss for the voters of Missouri,” he said. “It continues to be a disappointment that the secretary of state has always been an advocate of advance voting, but we still don’t have it.”
Thirty-one states allow unconditional early voting, either in person or by mail-in ballots, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Blunt and the two candidates running for secretary of state in November, Democrat Robin Carnahan and Republican Catherine Hanaway, have all said they support the concept of early voting.
Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said whether the city appeals or not, “advance voting will be one of the mayor’s top priorities in the next legislative session.”