Absentee voting in Missouri: Legit, or “wink-wink, nudge-nudge?”

Missouri does not have early voting. You have to vote when everyone else does, between the hours of 6 am and 7 pm CST on Election Day—unless you vote absentee, either in person or by mail. Last weekend was the first Saturday of in-person absentee voting in St. Louis County. There are four Saturdays for in-person absentee voting, in addition to weekday business hours.

But, as many Missourians seem to have discovered, the rules for voting absentee contain a little loophole that many may be wiggling through. Here are the rules, as specified by the Missouri Secretary of State. Can you spot the loophole?

Registered Missourians who expect to be prevented from going to their polling place on Election Day may vote absentee beginning six weeks prior to an election.

Absentee voters must provide one of the following reasons for voting absentee:

Absence on Election Day from the jurisdiction of the election authority in which such voter is registered to vote;

Incapacity 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

Religious belief or practice;

Employment as an election authority, as a member of an election authority, or by an election authority at a location other than such voter’s polling place;

Incarceration, provided all qualifications for voting are retained.

Certified participation in the address confidentiality program established under sections 589.660 to 589.681 because of safety concerns.

Did you catch it? It’s in the very first line:  “Registered Missourians who expect to be prevented from going to their polling place on Election Day…” [My emphasis].

Does that one word—“expect”—make it okay to vote absentee, even if you’re not really going to be out of town, working early or late, or in jail—because you might be, or expect to be, or just find voting on Election Day to be inconvenient?

Strictly speaking—no.  When you show up at the Absentee Voting site, you have to check one of the boxes listing your reason for voting absentee. An election official I interviewed reminded me that, while the Secretary of State’s website uses the word “expect,” the absentee ballot application does not include that term: It just says “absence…on Election Day.” When you put your signature at the bottom of that form, you are signing an affidavit asserting that your reason is true. The election official to whom you hand that affidavit doesn’t ask questions: You don’t have to show an airline ticket or any other proof that you fit into the category you’ve checked. But you are signing a legal document saying that you’re telling the truth.

But I wonder how many Missouri voters, seeing the convenience and popularity of no-excuse early voting in other states—are using the word “expect” to justify voting absentee.

If “expect” is the operative word, and voters have an expectation that they won’t be able to vote on Election Day, that’s not voter fraud, right? They are who they are. They live where they say they live. They bring the proper ID. They’re not planning to vote more than once. [One part of the affidavit makes you promise that you’re not going to try to vote more than once.] By allowing absentee voting, we are protecting all citizens’ right to vote. And that’s important, given the attempts at voter suppression that have become nearly epidemic in Republican-controlled state legislatures.

I suspect, too, that the election authorities—and the scores of temp workers staffing the check-in stations– know that this is happening.

Apparently, they are not authorized to fact-check your affidavit or subject you to interrogation. So, powerless to do anything about it—and perhaps even secretly wishing that Missouri would get on board with early voting already—maybe they tacitly accept the reality of what’s happening. I don’t know. Just guessing here.

But when I called the St. Louis County Election Board, an official–speaking off the record–told me this: “I don’t want to speak for the voters, but, just between you and me, there’s a lot of people who are going to be out of town on Election Day.”

Another election official said, “We trust that people don’t lie on their applications.”

I’m pretty sure I detected a  couple of wink-wink, nudge-nudges in those statements.

By the way, According to Ballotpedia, as of September 2016, Missouri is one of only a handful of states with no early voting that also require voters to provabsentee votingide an excuse for voting by absentee ballot. Twenty seven states and the District of Columbia offer no-excuse absentee voting. This map shows the distribution of no-excuse absentee voting, excuse-required absentee voting, and early voting, state-by-state. [Click on the map for a larger view.]

The election official who took my application mentioned that they are expecting 50,000 absentee votes in St. Louis County in the November 2016 election. A higher-up at the Election Board said that 30,000 to 35,000 is probably more accurate, reflecting the absentee participation in the 2012 presidential election. “In 2012,” he said, “interest in absentee voting increased as Election Day got closer, and during the last two weeks, we were getting as many as 2,000 absentee voters per day.”

Are there really that many people who fit the requirements?

My conclusion is that there’s probably a lot of “wink-wink, nudge-nudge,” in the absentee voting system here in Missouri. To me, a better way would be to offer some early voting days and thereby decriminalize the loophole wriggling that everybody knows is happening.