Jay Ashcroft Sued by Voter Advocates Over Mail-In Restrictions


Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is the target of new voter-access lawsuit. - STATE OF MISSOURI
  • Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is the target of new voter-access lawsuit.

Voting rights advocates have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, hoping to make it easier to vote by mail in the upcoming election — and ensure those votes are counted.

The suit alleges that Ashcroft and election offices across the state are violating voters' rights by forcing them to take unnecessary steps and health risks to cast ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The pandemic has uprooted our lives in ways we never imagined and that includes the voting process," Jamala Rogers, executive director of the Organization for Black Struggle, one of five organizations bringing the suit, says in a news release. "It appears that instead of trying to make this critical process safe and seamless, government officials have added a layer of stress and vulnerability, especially for African American communities." 

Missouri allows people who fit under strictly limited criteria to vote absentee. In response to the pandemic, the state has expanded the criteria, allowing anyone 65 and older and those with certain medical conditions to vote absentee. The state has also created a new category, mail-in voting, that in theory would allow all Missourians to vote remotely. However, the suit points out, the steps for mail-in voting are different and much more of a burden than voting absentee.

Mail-in voters have to request their ballot by mail, wait to receive that ballot, have it notarized and then mail it back in time to arrive by November 3 — a questionable proposition at a time when slowdowns at the U.S. Postal Service could delay ballots, the plaintiffs argue.

The process for voting absentee is easier. Missourians can email or fax their requests for an absentee ballot, and they (or a close relative, such as a spouse or child) can return their ballots in person if they prefer or worry about them arriving through the mail.

The suit argues there is no reason to require extra steps for mail-in voters and doing so will only limit the ability of people to vote during the pandemic.

"These voters must therefore choose between returning their ballot by mail and risking having their ballot rejected through no fault of their own, voting in person and risking exposure to the coronavirus, or not voting at all," the suit says.

Along with the Organization for Black Struggle, the organizations suing Ashcroft include the St. Louis A. Philip Randolph Institute, Greater Kansas City A. Philip Randolph Institute, National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis Section and Missouri Faith Voices. They're being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, Dēmos, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.

The suit asks a judge to allow mail-in voters the same options as absentee voters or to at least change the rules for receiving ballots through the mail, so that they can be counted if they're mailed by election day, not just received by election day.

The suit also asks the court to take steps to keep the state from tossing out ballots for minor errors on the return envelopes. One possible problem, cited in the suit, is if voters forget to check a box confirming the address listed on voter registries is the same as their mailing address. The state already has that information on file, and voters will have already confirmed it in requesting the ballot, the plaintiffs note.

Election officials in some counties will contact voters about minor errors like that, but there is no statewide requirement. That means people could have their votes thrown out without even knowing or having an opportunity to correct technical problems.

Republicans, starting with President Trump, have railed against mail-in voting, claiming without evidence that it will lead to widespread fraud. Trump has even recommended voters in North Carolina vote by mail and again in person to test the system. He later followed up with a tweet, again suggesting mail-in voters go to the polls.

"Don't let them illegally take your vote away from you," Trump tweeted, even though there is no evidence that anyone was trying to take away their votes.

The tweet was flagged by Twitter, and Trump's advice was widely criticized by election officials and states attorneys general, who point out it is illegal to vote twice. But the unsubstantiated idea of election fraud through mail-in voting has been a talking point for Republicans — one critics say is an attempt to suppress voting and prepare to claim elections were rigged if the conservatives lose.

Ashcroft has also advised against mail-in voting, saying in a radio interview, "It's just not the most secure way to hold an election."

The organizations suing Ashcroft worry that the push against mail-in voting will further disenfranchise voters.

“In the midst of a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic individuals, Missouri is constructing unnecessary barriers to the ballot that are forcing people to decide between their vote and their health," Keith Robinson, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s St. Louis Chapter, said in a news release. "This violates the basic promise of a democracy."

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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