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Absentee voting on rise in St. Louis County despite stricter rules in Missouri than in neighboring states

Prior to the Nov. 6 election, officials say it wasn’t unusual to see lines out the door at St. Louis county’s four locations for absentee voting – a situation that set new records for the county and may be repeated in coming elections.

County election officials said, as of Wednesday, Nov. 7, that there were 53,000 absentee ballots cast. That total, particularly the number cast in person, surprised both Republican Elections Director Rick Stream and Democratic Elections Director Eric Fey.

“The number of absentee ballots cast in person exceeded that of the presidential election of 2016,” Fey said. “But the absentee ballots in the mail were a little more normal, it was higher than the last mid-term, but it did not exceed the presidential.”

That 53,000 total could reach as high as 70,000 once all mail, overseas and military ballots are counted, Stream added. That’s around 10 to 12 percent of the county’s registered voters, Fey said. He added that the county didn’t have time to count most of the absentee ballots it received on Nov. 5 and 6.

To be included in the final vote, absentee ballots have to be received by 7 p.m. on Nov. 6. The only exceptions are for military and overseas ballots that have to be in hand by Nov. 9. Under Missouri law, a postmark on a mailed ballot is irrelevant. “They have to be in our hot hands by 7 p.m. on election night,” Fey said.

There are a few safeguards in place to help determine if an absentee ballot is valid. If it’s a mailed ballot, the person voting has to have the ballot envelope sent back notarized. However, disabled voters do not have to have the envelope notarized. “We verify the signature when it comes back against the signature on file,” Fey said. “Those things have to match up in order for the ballot to count.”

Despite the crowds at absentee ballot locations – the Board of Elections main office on Northwest Plaza Drive in St. Ann and the county’s government centers in Chesterfield, in South County and in Clayton – the state’s statutes regulating absentee voting in Missouri remain among the most stringent in this part of the country.

Stream and Fey said early and absentee voting requirements vary widely with some states allowing early voting four or five weeks before an election. “Some states, like Illinois … have no deadline to register to vote,” Fey added.

“Missouri is in the minority now. We’re one of only 13 states left that require people to provide a reason for voting before an election,” Fey said. “We are kind of an outlier in that regard. All of Missouri’s neighbors allow early voting of some sort without providing any kind of reason.”

Missouri lists 10 reasons that allow absentee voting. They include being absent from the county on election day, being incapacitated or disabled, being restricted by religious belief, being employed by an election authority, or being incarcerated, a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, a civilian authority working outside the United States, or a voter registered in Missouri but who moved to St. Louis County after the fourth Wednesday prior to an election.

Fey said even with regulations, it’s hard to enforce.

“It’s a very hard case to prove because Missouri’s statutes say the voter ‘expects’ to be out of the county on election day,” Fey said. “ So [a voter] can easily tell the judge ‘I thought I was going to be out of town but my plans changed.’ It’s a very hard thing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in court.”

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