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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Dead? Your vote won't count in Missouri

Friday, July 30, 2010

A voting sign in the rotunda of the Saline County Courthouse.
(Eric Crump/Democrat-News)
You may be able to vote early and often in Chicago, or even, so they say, cast a vote if you're dead, but we're not having any of that nonsense in Missouri.

The votes of Missouri residents who cast their votes early by absentee ballot, but who die before Election Day, aren't counted, said Saline County Clerk Ken Bryant Friday, July 16.

"Missouri is one of only a few states" that don't allow ballots of the deceased to be processed, Bryant said.

For most elections, Missourians can vote absentee until 5 p.m. on the Monday before Election Day. Absentee voters vote in person at Saline County courthouse or by mail. Each voter is added to a list of absentee voters and assigned a number that is then placed on the outside of the ballot envelope, along with the signature of the voter.

The ballots are then placed in a ballot box in the County Clerk's office and most of them will stay there until they are removed and verified by a special team on the afternoon of Election Day.

"But," said Bryant, "we subscribe to all the local newspapers, and the state of Missouri supplies us with a list of deaths. If we see an obituary, we check our list and remove that ballot immediately. It's destroyed without being opened."

At the appointed time on Election Day, team members remove the remaining ballots from their envelopes and run them through a voting machine like the ones at regular polling places. Bryant said some states count the absentee votes early, but that's not the case in Missouri.

"There are not a whole lot of states who still do it that way," Bryant said. "Since states have gone to voting machines, and several have gone to early voting (as opposed to absentee voting), when you vote, your vote is recorded and no name is attached to it, which retains the secrecy of the ballot."

Bryant emphasized that voters in Saline County who vote early shouldn't worry about the secrecy of their ballots.

"The team removes the ballot from the envelope after verifying the name, but places the ballot face down on top of the rest. No one is looking at the actual vote on the ballot," he said.

"We don't know how anyone voted, or if they voted at all," Bryant said. "(Absentee voters) can file a blank ballot if they want to."

As of Wednesday morning, July 28, more than 200 absentee ballots had been cast.

Thirty-one states allow "no-excuse" absentee voting, but whether the votes actually count if the voter dies pre-election is harder to pin down.

California, Texas, Tennessee, Ohio and West Virginia all have laws that specifically allow the early votes to count, even if the voter has died.

And in states where absentee voting is done by machine, the same way it's done on Election Day, separating the ballots of the still-living from the recently deceased is impossible, so those votes count, too.

But especially in those states where the voting is done by paper ballot, like Missouri, voters who cast their ballots ahead of time and then die before Election Day are, in effect, disenfranchised by the removal of their ballot from the count. Other states following this practice include South Dakota, North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and, perhaps surprisingly, Illinois.

No exception is made for soldiers who die in the line of duty, Bryant said. Soldiers in war zones are allowed to vote by e-mail, he added, "but if they die before Election Day, and we know about it, that ballot will be discarded."

Bryant said he's not aware of any legislation under consideration to change the rules, especially since the Missouri legislature is now in recess. There have been some proposals in the past, he said, "usually tied to early voting options," but nothing's been approved yet.

Bryant said voting laws are complex and very detailed.

"Yes, it's complicated," he acknowledged. "My staff and I spend three or four months working on each election, making sure that the five minutes each voter spends voting goes smoothly, except perhaps for the irritation any of them might feel about the candidates.

"So many little things can and do go wrong, but we try to minimize it."

Saline County residents who moved into the county after registration for the August primary closed on July 7 can still vote on the intrastate question on the August ballot if they can prove they are registered in another Missouri county. For the November election, registration closes Oct. 6.

Contact Kathy Fairchild at kfairchild@marshallnews.com

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