JEFFERSON CITY — While Missouri residents are still adjusting to last year's voting changes, members of both parties are pushing for more changes this legislative session.
Voting rights continue to be a national debate and a number of Missouri legislators have introduced legislation to restrict access to the polls, while others hope to expand access to voting and rollback some of last year's legislation.
On Monday, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft announced that he was ending Missouri's membership in the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nonprofit, interstate organization tasked with helping states maintain accurate voting rolls.
In a letter to ERIC's executive director, Ashcroft cited the lack of addressing multi-state voter fraud, a requirement to reach out to individuals not registered to vote, and the lack of participation from neighboring states among the reasons for leaving the organization. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia remain as members.
Missouri’s departure from ERIC is disappointing, said Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon, telling the Missouri Independent that the state's voter rolls have gotten cleaner as a result of the membership in ERIC.
Voting changes enacted last year
In 2022, the Missouri General Assembly passed HB 1878, a package of new election laws which included a new photo ID requirement in order to vote.
Missourians now need to present an ID issued by the state or federal government to cast a ballot, which opponents fear will disadvantage elderly and low-income voters.
Among the other provisions in the package were rules banning paid solicitation of voter registration applications, banning non-Missouri voters from being volunteer solicitors, banning people from soliciting voters into obtaining an absentee ballot application, as well as a requirement that volunteers who attempt to sign up more than 10 voters must register with the state. A circuit judge placed a preliminary injunction on these sections of the bill ahead of last November's midterm. The preliminary injunction remains in place until a final decision is issued.
Another part of the bill created a two-week period of no-excuse absentee voting. Prior to this, voters needed a valid excuse to vote absentee. However, this change only applies to those who vote absentee in person.
State Republican leadership lauded the legislation as a way of protecting Missouri elections.
Ashcroft, an outspoken supporter of HB 1878, said that he believes the new laws made the voting process more credible without hurting accessibility.
“We’ve made it easier with the expansion of in-person voting ... I think we’ve made it more secure with the photo ID requirements, and I think we added credibility with all sorts of things," he said in an interview with the Missourian.
Ashcroft said that he believes that voter fraud is enough of an issue to warrant the new photo ID requirements.
“I don’t think it happens frequently and ... I don’t want to be someone that’s saying every election is at risk, but I also don’t want to be someone that’s saying voter fraud never happens — it does," he said.
Nevertheless, voting rights activists still say that HB 1878 makes voting in Missouri more difficult than it should be.
A national trend
Missouri was not alone in passing restrictions to voting.
Several states have already passed voter ID laws and limited absentee voting. Many states have voter registration deadlines of 30 days before an election, the earliest cut-off permitted under federal law.
In 2021, Texas passed sweeping legislation prohibiting safe voting methods implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting; requiring new ID mandates for voting by mail, which was already limited; prohibiting the unsolicited mailing of vote-by-mail applications; adding new requirements for assisting disabled voters; empowering partisan poll watchers; and requiring monthly citizenship checks on the voting rolls.
CNN reported that 18 states passed restrictive voting laws in the period between the 2020 election and July 2021.
After former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, some leaders on the far right publicly expressed doubts about the integrity of elections across the country and began pushing for further restrictions, some of which are incompatible with federal law.
The National Voter Registration Act prohibits states from making registered voters re-register, but that didn’t stop Pennsylvania state senator Doug Mastriano from proposing it in his 2022 gubernatorial campaign.
The Republican, who made a name for himself by aggressively promoting Trump's version of the 2020 election, wanted to throw out all 8.7 million voter registrations in his state and start over.
While Mastriano's proposed plan would have certainly been struck down by the courts, other states have successfully completed lesser-scale purges of the voting rolls.
An infamous case occurred in Georgia in 2017, when then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp removed 560,000 people from the rolls in the lead-up to his 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
According to public radio station WABE, Kemp maintained that this was important for preventing fraud. His team argued that most of the people purged in 2017 had likely moved away or died.
However, 65% of Georgians who re-registered after being purged did so in the same county, WABE reported, meaning they never should have been removed in the first place.
Missouri to purge voters?
Currently, several bills are being considered in the Missouri General Assembly regarding voting rights.
Among these is SB44, which would require local election authorities to canvass the registration records of all precincts in its jurisdictions every two years. At the authorities’ discretion, the bill states, the canvass may include “only those voters who did not vote at the last general election and those voters who registered since the last general election.”
Voters who fail to respond to notices and do not engage in voter activity by the second general election after the date of the notice will have their names removed from the list of eligible voters, under the bill.
While proponents argue that this legislation is necessary to ensure the accuracy of the voter rolls, opponents fear it would lead to people unnecessarily losing their voter registration status.
Joyce Elliott, a Democrat and former Arkansas state senator, knows the risks of enacting this legislation. Clerks in her state employ similar methods to those outlined in SB44 for voter roll maintenance.
“It’s just a white piece of paper that looks like any other throwaway mail,” she said. “There just has to be something better than that.”
Arkansas is considered one of the most difficult states in which to vote, partially due to strict regulations governing absentee ballots. Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation notes that Arkansas had by far the highest rate of mail ballot rejection of any state, at 6.4%.
In December 2021, Elliott founded Get Loud, Arkansas, an organization to help mobilize Arkansas voters.
Prior to the 2022 midterms, Get Loud, Arkansas reached out to Arkansas voters who had been purged from the rolls. They helped 1,700 voters re-enroll, Elliott said.
“Some people didn’t even have any idea [they had been removed from the rolls] until they went to vote,” she said.
Elliott is skeptical of the intentions of those who propose stricter voting laws.
“People will say that it's not meant to be suppressive of poor people or people of color, but that’s what the effect generally is,” she said.
Some leaders in Missouri agree with Elliott's assessment.
The League of Women Voters was party to lawsuits on HB 1878.
Missouri chapter president Marilyn McLeod firmly believes that voting should be as accessible as possible, and that voter fraud is too rare to warrant restrictions.
“Putting any kind of roadblocks to stop from voting is not healthy for our democracy," McLeod said.
Lennon, the Boone County Clerk, has taken a proactive stance at keeping voters informed in the midst of changing laws.
Lennon has advocated for transparency in the process, encouraging local residents to become election judges and volunteers.
She also co-hosts the Higher Turnout Wide Marginspodcast which airs locally on KBIA with Eric Fey, the Democratic director of elections for St. Louis County. In each episode, Lennon and Fey discuss issues like voter education and election integrity with various experts.
“The more that we put rules in place that voters don’t understand, the harder it is for people to participate in our democracy, and I don’t think that that’s the direction we should be going," Lennon said.
Lennon is adamant that Missouri elections are already secure and well-run, and that any legislation assuming the contrary is not necessary.
The future for Missouri
A number of bills filed in the Missouri General Assembly this year by members of both parties are intended to enhance voting rights, not restrict them.
Rep. Eric Woods, D-Kansas City, sponsored HB740, which would repeal the voter registration deadline. Currently, state laws require prospective voters to register by the fourth Wednesday before the election — effectively 27 days, just three days short of the earliest deadline allowed under federal law.
Same-day registration is allowed in 21 states and Washington, D.C., while North Dakota does not require voters to register at all.
Other bills recently filed by members of both parties would enact automatic voter registration, remove provisions prohibiting convicted non-dangerous felons from voting while on parole or probation, and expand the list of acceptable IDs with which Missourians can vote.
These likely face an uphill battle in the legislature.
Meanwhile, Ashcroft has his own vision for the future of voting in Missouri.
Ashcroft would like to tighten the language regarding residency for people with multiple properties, as well as encourage more mail-in absentee voters to show up in person.
"I’d love to see more of those people going and voting in person. That helps strengthen our elections … but it also helps to make sure that those people’s votes count."
What to know for the municipal elections
Wednesday is the deadline to register to vote in the April municipal elections.
Denise Lieberman of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition said a preliminary trial date regarding the photo ID portion of the bill has been set for November, with a hearing in April.
This means that, despite the lawsuit, voters must still demonstrate a proper state or federal photo ID to vote in the municipal elections on April 4.
However, the preliminary injunction on the voter solicitation portions of the bill remains in effect.
This story previously had a graphic that displayed varying absentee and mail-in voting requirements in every U.S. state. The data used for that graphic was outdated, and the graphic has since been removed.