The Missouri legislature approved changes altering absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic Friday, the last day of the legislative session.
Lawmakers also approved legislation that ensures that COVID-19 testing will be free for Missouri residents if their health care provider recommends the test.
The voting change only applies through the rest of this year. Lawmakers added to the current list of requirements to allow absentee voting as an option for those suspected of contracting COVID-19 or being in an at-risk category of contracting the virus. Being "at-risk" is defined as having at least one of the following conditions apply:
- 65 years of age or older.
- Live in a licensed long-term care facility.
- Have chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma.
- Have serious heart conditions, diabetes or liver disease.
- Be immunocompromised.
- Have chronic kidney disease and is undergoing dialysis.
Voters who contract COVID-19 or are at risk would not need notarization when absentee voting. Additionally, new rules allow those not at risk but who simply don't want to vote in person for COVID-19 concerns to request an absentee ballot, but they would need to get their ballots notarized.
The changes were not universally supported.
"Mail-in voting is so easy to commit fraud," said Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee's Summit. "I checked this morning on eBay. I can buy a Missouri notary stamp for $15.30."
Those in the House also had similar concerns.
“I cannot be assured that we will have fair, honest, trustworthy and secure elections with this bill,” said Rep. Dan Stacy, R-Blue Springs. He also said he thought increased mail-in and absentee voting would raise election costs in Missouri.
Some noted that already, people who are confined because of illness can absentee vote without notarization.
Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis, said the bill was a good compromise.
“When the smoke cleared, I think both sides got a palatable product,” Price said. “One that we can present to the general public and say, ‘Hey, we tried, and we’ve given you the best option to protect you and your families, so you can go out and vote in safety.’”
Proposed changes to require voter ID for absentee voting were taken off the final version of the legislation. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft complained, but that didn't impact the vote.
"Without the agreed upon safeguards, I have grave concerns that this bill will make voting less secure and jeopardize the integrity of our elections," Ashcroft said in a statement.
With an emergency clause, the rules will be in effect upon approval by the governor. The legislation passed out of the Senate and House overwhelmingly.
Ultimately, Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, emphasized these changes are temporary.
"There are those who think this is the first step toward universal mail-in balloting and subsequent voter fraud. I will say that will not be the case. Of course, the provisions expire on Dec. 31, which I think is one of the most important provisions of this bill," he said.
In another COVID-19 related move, lawmakers included a measure as part of an omnibus health care bill to make COVID-19 testing and results free for Missouri residents if their health care provider recommends the test. The Department of Health and Senior Services can use federal funds to pay testing expenses not covered by health insurance.
Lawmakers also approved an emergency clause to ensure the measure will go into effect immediately if it is approved by the governor.
“Testing is the cornerstone of safely reopening our economy, and no Missourian should be denied a COVID-19 test simply because they can’t afford it,” Sen. John Rizzo, D- Kansas City, said. “Missourians without health insurance, or those who have fallen into the coverage gap, should not be forced to pay out-of-pocket for their COVID-19 test. This legislation will cover these costs so that people do not have to face the frightening uncertainty of not knowing their COVID status.”