Proposed Missouri voting law revisions advance in both chambers

(The Center Square) – Proposed revisions in Missouri voting laws advanced in both chambers this week with measures addressing how absentee ballots are distributed, clarifying that “only” citizens can legally vote and prohibiting judges from writing ballot language on the path to floor votes.

The House Elections & Elected Officials Committee Wednesday staged a public hearing on House Bill 1362, filed by Rep. Hardy Billington, R-Poplar Bluff, which would outlaw “unsolicited distribution” of absentee ballot applications unless voters specifically request them.

Under HB 1362, “No individual or organization shall distribute unsolicited applications for absentee ballots by mail, electronic mail or any other means.” Doing so would be a misdemeanor offense.

Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, said county elections officials should take heed of the provisions in HB 1362.

“This is a good thing because if (elections officials) start sending unsolicited – or even handing out forms – I think it could open it to potential fraud,” Reisch said, adding the bill “doesn’t prohibit somebody saying ‘Hey, if you need an absentee ballot, please contact your local election authority.’”

Democrats countered it is standard procedure for organizations and candidates – including Republicans – to distribute absentee ballot applications to constituents.

The House panel then endorsed House Joint Resolution 48, filed by Rep. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, in a partisan 7-2 vote that would ask Missouri voters to adopt a constitutional amendment clarifying “only” citizens older than 18 can legally vote in elections.

The Missouri Constitution says “all citizens of the United States” older than 18 are eligible to vote, with some exceptions. Trent’s proposed HJR 48 would change “all” to “only.”

HJR 48 is similar to Florida’s Amendment 1 adopted in November by nearly 80 percent of the vote.

The Florida amendment was sponsored – and financed to the tune of $8.3 million – by Florida Citizen Voters, founded by former Missouri Sen. John Loudon, R-Chesterfield, who served in the Missouri House 1994-2000 and Senate from 2000-08.

During the April 7 public hearing on HJR 48 before the committee, the measure drew criticism as being redundant, unnecessary and purposely designed to sew confusion and stoke anti-immigrant fears.

American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri legislative associate Mo Del Villar said putting such a ballot measure before voters “gives the impression that citizenship is not required to vote” and is “totally unnecessary.”

During a March floor debate on HB 333, which would require citizens to pay $500 to file an initiative petition, Trent added what would become HJR 48 as an amendment, drawing a rebuke from Democrats, including Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis.

The tweak is a political ploy to garner support among voters unaware Missouri’s Constitution already states “only citizens can vote” when it states “all citizens can vote,” he said.

“All this amendment would do is put the question on the ballot and really confuse voters,” Meredith said. “By offering them something that’s already true, that’s already in our constitution, that they certainly won’t want to vote against, in order to get them to vote for a bunch of other things that they might want to vote against.

HB 333, filed by Rep. John Simmons, R-Washington, was adopted by the House on March 11 in a 111-48 vote, and secured its first Senate nod Wednesday when the chamber’s Local Government & Elections Committee endorsed it in a 5-2 vote and sent it to the floor.

The Senate Local Government & Elections Committee Wednesday also gave HB 850, sponsored by Rep. John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, a “do pass” endorsement.

HB 850 would bar judges from rewriting ballot language for proposed constitutional or statutory changes written by the Legislature.

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