The right to vote is fundamental to any free democracy. The right to vote, however, ceases to be a right when the ability to cast a vote is lost. In this global pandemic, unprecedented in our lifetimes, we must make sure that the right to vote exists beyond words in our Constitution. Our local, state, and federal governments must make all efforts to ensure that every voter can cast a ballot without jeopardizing their health and the health of those around them.
Our local officials here in St. Charles County and St. Louis have stepped up to protect our voters. In St. Charles, Director of Elections Kurt Bahr has instructed his staff that the risk of contracting COVID-19 falls under the illness option for an absentee ballot. He’s also moved to reinstate the barcodes on the voter notifications sent out prior to elections, speeding up the voting process and minimizing the contact between voters and poll workers.
The St. Louis County Board of Elections has gone a step further, proactively mailing absentee ballot applications for all elections this year to all voters age 60 and above, as they are most at risk of serious illness.
Unfortunately, there is a failure to take our right to vote seriously from our state officials. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, never a friend of voting rights, and our fill-in Governor Mike Parson came out against doing anything. Parson, who clearly didn’t want this job and isn’t up to the task, said it’s too early to even think about doing anything. This is his approach to anything that isn’t a kickback to his donors, to sit and do nothing. His mindset is perfectly suited for the powerless position he wanted as Lieutenant Governor, but as the state’s chief executive his inability to make a decision without there being a check coming to him puts Missourians in harm’s way.
Parson is right on one thing, this should not be a partisan issue. Infection doesn’t check to see how a person votes before striking. However, in practice this has become a partisan issue at the state level. House and Senate Democrats have repeatedly called for no-excuse absentee voting along with vote-by-mail allowing ballots to be sent to every voter. State level Republicans are opposed any action to protect Missourians and our right to vote without risking health.
Missouri Republicans seem to be hoping for a Wisconsin-style election, where the heavily Democratic city of Milwaukee moved from 180 polling locations to 5. They seem to think decreasing turnout as much as possible is their best election strategy, and they are willing to expose Missourians to infection to reach that goal. It must be asked why a Party claiming support enough to justify their supermajority is so set on limiting the ability of voters to express that support.
In a free democracy, the legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed. We cannot give our consent if we can’t safely cast a ballot. We must also question the intentions of anyone who seeks to gain or maintain power through silencing the voice of the people. Making it easier for every Missourian to vote does not serve one Party over the other. It only gives us a result that more accurately reflects the will of the voters.
The solution to this ongoing crisis is simple. Parson and Ashcroft must immediately clarify that a global pandemic is a valid excuse for all voters to cast an absentee ballot. The legislature must fix our outdated election law to allow no-excuse absentee ballots. The legislature must also move to copy the successful vote-by-mail systems that have been securely in place for many years in states such as Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. There is no valid reason not to take these steps.
The time to act is now. Parson’s refusal to lead, wanting to take a wait and see approach, will only cost us money and security. Kicking the can down the road as the legislature has on so many other issues doesn’t make the problem disappear. It isn’t going to magically fix itself. We know the risk of large gatherings in small spaces like polling locations. We know the high risk to older folks, who make up the large majority of election workers. We also know the politics driving this is the fear among many Republicans that the higher the turnout, the worse their chances of winning. We cannot let this desire to hold onto power strip us of our ability to vote.