Missouri’s local elections officials say they need help from the legislature to keep voting safe amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Greene County’s Shane Schoeller says he and other county clerks want several things from lawmakers, starting with a change letting everyone cast absentee ballots in an emergency.
Normally, only people who have one of six specific excuses, like illness or travel away from home on election day, can mail in or drop off a ballot early.
Schoeller said that's not enough in a pandemic, when everyone should be avoiding crowded areas like polling places.
“In a time period like this, we need something to cover everyone,” Schoeller said.
Corey Dillon, one of two Jackson County Election Board directors, said there are pros and cons to everything, including mail-in ballots, but acknowledged that many election authorities have talked about expanded mail-in or absentee ballots for years – not just now because of the pandemic.
Schoeller, who sits on the board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, said his group also wants some other tweaks to prepare for mostly absentee elections.
For one, they want the state to let voters request absentee ballots online so they don’t have to call or visit offices as they do now.
They also want to be able to set up drop-off boxes outside their offices so people can turn in ballots without going into an office or using the mail, which can be delayed.
Schoeller said clerks in more populous areas also want the authority to set up special “vote centers” with more space than the usual polling place to accommodate social distancing.
The centers would be open to all voters in a county or other jurisdiction regardless of where they live, unlike the usual polling places.
It’s not clear when the changes would be considered. Lawmakers are expected to be focused on approving emergency spending to fight the coronavirus and passing the state budget.
It’s also unclear whether the changes have the support of Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, the state’s top elections official.
Some have also pushed for more aggressive moves.
Former Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat, suggested recently that Ashcroft could solve the whole problem without the legislature.
He could rule the pandemic a valid excuse to vote absentee without the legislature’s approval and “dare the courts to tell them they’re wrong,” Kander said on Twitter.
But Ashcroft disagreed, saying in a recent interview he did not have that power.
Democrats and the clerks association have also pushed for no-excuse absentee voting outside of an emergency to make voting more convenient and easier for clerks to manage, but Republican lawmakers have mostly ignored their proposals.
The next elections are set for June 2, when municipal elections postponed from April are set to take place. It's not clear the changes will be in effect by then or even by the August primaries.
"My preference would be they make the changes sooner rather than later, though," Schoeller said.
Right now, Dillon and her colleagues are preparing for the June 2 municipal elections as they normally would for an election. Before Gov. Mike Parson postponed the election, local election officials had worried about finding enough election judges and volunteers and polling places due to cancelations. Dillon said they have not yet started to reach out to previously scheduled judges and polling locations, but there’s still time for that.
“At this point, nobody knows what the future holds,” Dillon said. “We’ll prepare until we hear otherwise.”
The Examiner’s Mike Genet contributed to this article.