Hartmann: Mail-in Voting Is Long Overdue

Apr 29, 2020 at 6:30 am
Missouri is behind the times when it comes to mail-in voting.
Missouri is behind the times when it comes to mail-in voting. DOYLE MURPHY

On April 8, the noted Tweeter Donald Trump proclaimed the following words, to the liking of 145,400 people and bots:

"Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide (sic) mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn't work out well for Republicans."

Trump cast his ballot in 2018 as a mail-in voter registered in the state of Florida. Ponder that over your evening sip of medicinal Clorox.

Give the man credit for a stunning display of candor. He is unapologetic in his belief that greater participation in democracy is a bad thing because (he presumes) it's bad for Republicans.

In the safe confines of Fox and Friends, Trump laid out his objection to a congressional proposal that would have provided for increased mail-in voting, early voting and same-day registration as a response to the coronavirus crisis:

"They had things, levels of voting, that if you'd ever agreed to it, you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again," Trump said.

He expounded at one of those daily "Trump Show" briefings:

"Now, mail ballots — they cheat. Okay? People cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they're cheaters. They go and collect them. They're fraudulent in many cases." When pressed, Trump went on to call mail-in voting "horrible" and "corrupt" and alleged that "you get thousands and thousands of people sitting in somebody's living room, signing ballots all over the place."

Back home in Missouri, the living rooms aren't quite so large. But "for whatever reason," the state's Republicans are firmly opposed to mail-in voting. With Republican Gov. Mike Parson publicly opposed to the idea, it's hard to imagine the GOP's legislative mega-majority compromising with the cluster of House and Senate Democrats who are, indeed, "clamoring for it." Nothing is impossible, but don't hold your breath.

By no means, however, has the issue of mail-in voting been laid to rest. On April 17, the ACLU and Missouri Voter Protection Coalition filed a lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court on behalf of the NAACP, League of Women Voters and some others. Its goal: to seek "injunctive and declaratory relief" that would establish the right of Missourians to vote by mail under a provision of state law that allows for it under a narrowly defined exception in cases of illness or disability.

History is on the side of the Democrats. Missouri's state constitution is among the most stringent in protecting citizens' voting rights, says Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri legal director. And, as Rothert notes, the state Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected Republican attempts to impose crassly partisan photo ID requirements for voting.

As is its custom, Missouri is behind the times in the area of voting rights, despite its constitution. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington already have universal mail-in voting and send ballots to all registered voters. Another 29 states allow "no excuse" balloting, although those ballots must be requested.

Missouri is one of just sixteen states that do not allow mail "no excuse" voting to all registered voters. Eight of those states have moved to relax their laws for at least some elections in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the lawsuit, which also notes that the Centers for Disease Control "is encouraging mail-in voting as much as possible as an alternative to in-person voting."

The lawsuit is essentially seeking to have a previous exception to the law become the rule. It argues that the "excuse" of having an illness or disability now extend to all of us, since so many "wish to confine themselves at home and vote absentee to avoid contracting or spreading the virus that causes COVID-19."

It asks the courts to declare that "all eligible Missouri voters should be able to vote absentee by invoking "[i]ncapacity or confinement due to illness or physical disability, including a person who is primarily responsible for the physical care of a person who is incapacitated or confined due to illness or disability." That chapter of Missouri law (115.277.1(2), RSMo) exempts voters from needing to get their votes notarized, by the way.

The lawsuit lays out a simple common-sense fact:

"Without declaratory and injunctive relief from this Court, Missouri voters face the unconscionable choice between protecting their health and the health of their families and neighbors and forfeiting their right to vote or voting absentee at the risk of their ballots being discarded and potential criminal prosecution."

It's important to draw a distinction between photo ID laws and mail-in voting. In the case of photo ID laws, the obvious purpose is to make it harder for people without ID to vote, and those people — disproportionately poor, people of color and disabled — are dramatically more likely to vote Democratic. Photo ID laws are a solution searching for a problem: There hasn't been a single case of voter-impersonation fraud if Missouri history, if for no other reason than it's such a logistically impossible concept.

As for mail-in voting, the evidence isn't quite so obvious that either side would benefit more, unless one accepts the broad assumption — crassly enunciated by Trump — that greater participation in democracy is inherently bad for Republicans. Studies of voters in states allowing mail-in voting provides no clear partisan advantage, while increasing turnout slightly among infrequent voters, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Trump's claims are corroborated by studies done by no one.

There is no denying that the national battle lines had been drawn this year, even before the pandemic, with Democrats wanting easier access to the voting booths through mail-in voting and the like, and Republicans generally opposed. But the pandemic has changed the political dynamic.

A poll in early April "found that 72% of all U.S. adults, including 79% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans, supported a requirement for mail-in ballots as a way to protect voters in case of a continued spread of the respiratory disease later this year," Reuters reported of its polling with Ipsos.

Meanwhile, here at home, it's not clear whether Republicans are planning another run at crafting a photo ID requirement for 2020. It may be that Missouri will have to settle for a court fight over mail-in voting to get its annual voter-suppression fix.

What a shame that Republicans dominate the political process so completely that they need not give serious consideration to the topic of mail-in voting in the General Assembly. That would force them to debate the wisdom of Donald Trump.

He is, after all, the same guy who just wondered aloud about curing COVID-19 by injecting ourselves with disinfectant and shining ultraviolet lights up our butts.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).