JEFFERSON CITY – A Missouri proposal to create one of the most expansive early voting periods in the nation appears to have fallen short of reaching the November ballot, according to an Associated Press analysis of initiative petition signatures.
The AP review of signature counts conducted by Missouri's local election authorities found that the proposed constitutional amendment on early voting lacks enough valid signatures of registered voters in all but two of the state's eight congressional districts.
To qualify for the ballot, initiatives must get signatures equal 8 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in at least six of the congressional districts.
Missouri currently allows absentee voting only in limited circumstances when people attest that they won't be able to vote in person on Election Day. The initiative proposed a 42-day, no-excuse-needed early voting period that would have been one of the longest in the nation and also would have allowed votes to be cast on weekends.
If the early voting measure misses the ballot, it would mark a significant setback for Democratic-aligned groups that had spent about $700,000 on the initiative petition drive in hopes that the early voting period would win approval this year and be in place for the 2016 presidential and gubernatorial elections.
"That would be disappointing, because I think Missourians showed that they support the right and the ability for people to be able to participate in the democratic process," said Richard von Glahn, an organizer for Missouri Jobs with Justice, which helped coordinate about 800 volunteer petition circulators.
The AP analysis shows that a separate proposed constitutional amendment did appear to get enough valid signatures. That measure would limit teacher tenure protections and require public schools to make personnel decisions based largely on student performance data.
Secretary of State Jason Kander has until next Tuesday to officially certify – or reject – initiatives to appear on the Nov. 4 ballot.
After the initiative petitions were submitted to Kander's office in May, he sent them to local election officials to verify whether the signers are registered voters and whether their addresses and signatures on the petitions match those in the official voter files. The AP obtained copies from Kander's office of the forms submitted by local election authorities detailing how many signatures were checked, how many were determined to be valid and the reasons others were rejected.
Those documents show that the early voting measure got well more than the needed signatures in Missouri's two Democratic-leaning regions, the 1st District in St. Louis and the 5th District that extends eastward from Kansas City.
But the AP analysis shows that the initiative appears to be more than 1,300 signatures short in the 4th District, which includes Columbia and parts of west-central Missouri; more than 2,200 short in the 2nd District in suburban St. Louis; more than 2,600 short in southwest Missouri's 7th District; and more than 5,800 short in northern Missouri's 6th District. The petition drive did not aggressively target the state's 3rd and 8th Congressional Districts.
The secretary of state's office relies on local authorities to determine valid signatures. But the state office is now reviewing whether the petition pages were submitted by registered circulators. If not, Missouri law disqualifies any signatures on those pages.
That means the number of signatures deemed valid by local election authorities could decline further but is unlikely to rise when the secretary of state makes his official certification decision, said Kander spokesman Kevin Flannery.
Proponents of initiatives that don't make the ballot can challenge the secretary of state's decision in court, most commonly by contesting rejected signatures on a case-by-case basis.
If that happens, Republican political consultant Jeff Roe said he would try to intervene in the court battle to keep the early voting initiative off the ballot. Roe has set up a political committee opposing the measure.
Roe said the apparent signature shortage "is a stunning example of Democrat incompetence" in the initiative petition campaign.
Democrats and Republicans have been battling nationally over state early voting laws based on an assumption that more generous early voting periods benefit Democrats more than Republicans. New research suggests those partisan assumptions about early voting may not be true. Yet the perception is deeply grounded because of President Barack Obama's pioneering use of early voting to drive a greater number of Democrats to the polls in his victories in 2008 and 2012.