Government & Politics

Democrats say no excuse for Missouri’s failure to offer excuse-free absentee voting

Kansas City voters at Country Club Christian Church on Ward Parkway last November.
Kansas City voters at Country Club Christian Church on Ward Parkway last November.

Missourians who can’t make it to the polls on Election Day have some of the most limited voting options in the nation.

They can vote absentee only with one of six state-sanctioned excuses. Those include absence from the area where a voter is registered, physical disability, illness or work as the primary caregiver for someone disabled or ill.

Missouri is one of a dozen states that offers neither no-excuse absentee voting or any other form of early balloting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Early voting provides for specific times and polling places to cast ballots before an election.

A pair of legislative proposals filed in the Missouri General Assembly would expand absentee voting. They come after a mid-term election that saw long lines in Kansas City and St. Louis.

“No one should have to give up that right because their schedules don’t allow them to exercise it,” said Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City. Her bill creates excuse-free absentee voting across the state.

But Missouri’s leading election official signaled this week he is unlikely to support absentee voting expansion. The Senate’s GOP leader was also lukewarm to the idea.

“The process works very well,” Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said, pointing to turnout in the midterm elections as a sign the system works for voters.

“I’m not inclined to change it unless we see that there’s a problem,” he said. “Because every time you make a change, you could introduce problems.”

Arthur said the real issue for state GOP leaders is their concern that any form of early voting hands an edge to Democrats by increasing turnout. Access to voting has also become a political flashpoint under President Donald Trump, who has claimed widespread voter fraud that his administration has been unable to prove.

“Historically GOP leadership and lawmakers have opposed early voting because they perceive it as a partisan issue and think that somehow it will give an advantage to Democrats,” Arthur said. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Most states, including red Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma, have both excuse-free absentee voting, and early voting. Kansas voting can begin 20 days before an election.

Long election day lines in Missouri were a recurring complaint during the 2018 midterms. While similar issues arose in Kansas, a voter in Johnson County could still go to one of six early voting sites to cast a ballot. Residents across the state line have no option other than the limited absentee route.

Another proposal, filed by Rep. Noel Shull, R-Kansas City, would allow only those 60 and older to vote absentee without an excuse.

The Republican lawmaker said an attorney approached him because of concern that those voting absentee on the basis of an approved excuse—like out-of-state travel—would be breaking the law if they had a change of plan and stayed home.

Shull said he would likely oppose expanding excuse-free absentee voting to voters 18 and older.

“I think that progress comes gradually and that if we expose those people to it initially and it works out alright, maybe it can be expanded,” Shull said. “That would be up to someone else.”

Senate President Dave Schatz said this week the bills weren’t on his “radar screen.”

“I do probably have a personal reservation about absentee voting,” Schatz, R-Sullivan, said. “To an extent of just making sure that it’s convenient. We want to have convenience for people to be able to vote, but also how does it affect our county officials and election officials in that fashion?”

In Johnson County, Missouri where there are roughly 30,000 registered voters, County Clerk Diane Thompson said she favors no-excuse absentee voting.

“I don’t see it causing any additional workload or anything like that.” she said.

Shull’s proposal concerned her, however, because different sets of rules for different voters could create an issue of fair and equal access to vote.

And in Worth County, the state’s smallest at around 2,000 people, county clerk Roberta Owens said that while no-excuse absentee voting would be an improvement, early voting would be too costly for a county like Worth.

“I’m okay with anybody can vote absentee without having an excuse, that’s fine with me,” Owens said. “I only have a problem if they want early voting.”

Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, a St. Louis County Democrat, said there’s no excuse for Missouri not offering no-excuse voting.

“I don’t think you need to have an excuse to vote early,” she said “If you’re not going to be available that day, or you don’t want to vote that day, it would allow more people to vote.”

Hunter Woodall is a political reporter for The Kansas City Star, covering the Missouri General Assembly and state government. Before turning to Missouri politics, he worked as The Star’s Kansas political corespondent.