Gov. Mike Parson on Tuesday rejected a key part of a plan local election officials say will keep voters safe amid the coronavirus outbreak.
At issue was the idea of allowing anyone to vote absentee amid the pandemic to avoid having to go to polling places where the virus could spread.
Currently, Missouri only lets people with one of six specific excuses, like illness or travel away from home on election day, mail in or drop off ballots early.
But county clerks, including Greene County’s Shane Schoeller, are pushing for the legislature to change that to keep people safe in this year’s elections.
Parson said calls for that kind of change are actually about politics, though, and don’t need to be addressed right now.
“The absentee ballot is more of a political issue than it is anything,” he said. “This is a Democrat-Republican issue and that's where this is all headed, is to a political answer as to what's driving behind this force.”
Parson added that right now, the government needs to focus on jobs and the economy, not elections.
“There will be time to talk about the elections in November, and August, but now's not the time for that,” he said.
It was not clear when he thought it would be appropriate. Missouri’s next elections are the municipal contests set for June 2, which Parson himself rescheduled from April.
Parson made the remarks in a news conference physically closed to the process where questions must be submitted an hour before he begins speaking.
But Parson’s description of the issue in nakedly partisan terms echoed remarks from several prominent Republicans in recent weeks, most notably President Donald Trump.
Trump, who has endorsed Parson’s run for a full, four-year term as governor this year, said last week that Democratic efforts to ease ballot access would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
It’s not clear that’s true, despite its familiarity as a partisan talking point. Available research on states that vote entirely by mail suggests it may disadvantage some core Democratic constituencies.
And in the current pandemic, officials in other states are heeding the advice of the federal Centers for Disease Control in pushing mail-in voting first and foremost as a way to keep people safe.
And it's not just Democrats.
Republican-led Indiana, another state that usually requires specific excuses to vote absentee, is letting everyone do it in the June 2 primary, for example.
GOP-controlled Iowa, which already gives everyone the option, is mailing everyone absentee ballots for its June 2 primary to save them time.
Henry County Clerk Rick Watson, who leads the state's association of clerks and election authorities, which is calling for the temporary expansion of absentee voting, didn’t know what to make of Parson’s comments.
“I don’t know why he’d feel it’s politically motivated,” said Watson, a Republican. “We feel it’s the best thing to do in this situation, and hopefully we’ll never have to use it again.”
He suggested that perhaps the governor wasn’t aware of what the clerks are trying to do.
They’re also hoping to get the legislature to make it so people can:
request absentee ballots online;
drop off ballots in drop boxes outside clerks’ office;
vote in-person in special “vote centers” with more space than polling places may usually have.
“We want voters to feel confident that they’re safe to do that simple act of voting,” he said.
State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat running against Parson for governor this year, was less charitable.
"Making sure everyone can vote safely isn't a 'Democrat-Republican issue,' she wrote on Twitter. "Missourians should be able to participate in our democracy without putting their lives at risk."
Schoeller, the Greene County Clerk and a fellow Republican, also offered polite pushback.
He started a statement by complimenting the governor’s “measured and deliberative approach” to the overall crisis.
But then he pointed out Parson’s own declarations have made clear the crisis could hurt people, especially older folks who are both more likely to vote and more likely to get very sick if they catch the virus.
“I look forward to continuing to partner with state policy makers as we all seek to be conscientious on behalf of all voters and to do what is best to protect the people of our great state and their vote,” Schoeller said.
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Tribune’s coronavirus coverage is being provided free to our readers. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Tribune at columbiatribune.com/subscribenow and help keep local businesses afloat at supportlocal.usatoday.com.