A group of Missouri rabbis has come up with what could be a novel workaround for state rules about who can vote absentee during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Mike Parson (R) said last month he didn’t believe that concern about spreading or contracting the virus should be one of the excuses Missourians could cite when requesting an absentee ballot for upcoming elections. On May 1, though, he appeared to vacillate, saying he’d “probably” be open to expanding access to absentee ballots under certain conditions.
No state rules have been changed as of yet, even as municipal elections remain set for June 2.
But the rabbis have a plan. They’ve discovered that it’s valid in Missouri to cite “religious belief or practice” as a reason for needing to vote by mail.
In a letter to their religious community, 37 Jewish clergy members affirmed that their “deeply-held religious belief” about the sanctity of human life compels them to vote absentee during the pandemic.
Citing the Torah and rabbinical teaching, the clergy members said they have a religious obligation to protect their own lives and the lives of others.
“As the pandemic continues, our Jewish teachings, laws, and traditions require us to stay home except in situations where leaving the home is essential to preserving life,” the leaders wrote Monday. “Wherever else possible, one must do everything in one’s power to do whatever else is needed from the safety and security of one’s own home.”
Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, head of St. Louis’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said leaders in her area were “dismayed” by Parson saying last month that the coronavirus crisis was not a valid excuse for people to request to an absentee ballot. She pointed out that after Wisconsin’s recent election, at least 40 cases of the coronavirus were reported in people who had voted in person.
“In drafting and signing this letter, we are hoping to raise more awareness of the need to have better access to voting, and access to voting that does not require any person to choose between their personal health and their democratic values,” Neiss told HuffPost.
The availability of absentee ballots ― and the government’s ability to count large numbers of them ― have become growing concerns as states prepare for primaries and elections while dealing with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. President Donald Trump and Republicans in some states have painted voting by mail as a threat to their party ― even though researchers haven’t found evidence to back up the argument that absentee voting favors Democrats.
Two-thirds of states have “no-excuse” absentee voting, which means any qualified voter can vote by mail without having to provide a reason. But Missouri is one of 16 states that require certain voters to declare exactly why they can’t cast their ballots in person. The state has three elections coming up, including municipal contests set to take place in June.
Asked to clarify if Missourians can cite the coronavirus pandemic as a reason for voting absentee, a spokesperson for Missouri’s secretary of state told HuffPost on Friday that the law “does not state that fear of an illness is an acceptable excuse.” The spokesperson added, “Our office follows the plain language of the law, and the authority of this office does not include judging a person’s eligibility to vote by absentee ballot.”
Missouri counties have come to differing conclusions about the issue. St. Louis County has said that people quarantining due to elevated risk from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, can choose “confined due to illness or disability” as a reason for voting absentee. This is the preferred option, Neiss said, since it doesn’t require a notarized ballot, unlike the religious belief option.
The rabbis wrote Monday’s joint letter to ensure a path forward for Missourians who don’t have the option to cite confinement due to illness while applying to vote by mail, Neiss said.
“Particularly in this age of the pandemic, most of us find ourselves vulnerable —whether because of lack of child care, employment obligations, caring for sick family members or fear of catching the virus,” she said. “Absentee ballots should be made available to all Missourians, and the necessary infrastructure must be put into place to properly manage and tally all the mail-in votes.”
The rabbis are making a plausible case for a religious exemption, according to Katherine Franke, director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project at Columbia Law School. Missouri’s Constitution grants protections for religious liberty that are much broader than those provided by the U.S. Constitution, she said. The state also has a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which provides additional protections for people of faith or people with deep philosophical convictions.
Most of the religious liberty challenges that have emerged in light of the COVID-19 pandemic have centered on clergy ― largely evangelical Christians ― who want to hold in-person services despite their states’ stay-at-home orders. In at least two instances, the Justice Department has stepped in to defend the religious liberty of churches engaged in these legal battles.
But the rabbis’ request is different, Franke said. They are seeking to force the governor to grant greater, not lesser, protections for public health, she said.
Missouri state lawmakers pushed hard several years ago to strengthen the state’s religious liberty protections, so Franke said it will be “interesting” to see if those politicians will also support faith-based requests for an exemption from in-person voting.
“What this initiative on the part of rabbis in Missouri raises is a fundamental principle of religious liberty ― that governments must protect religious liberty rights whether or not they are in alignment with elected officials’ larger political agendas,” Franke said. “The principle of neutrality is foundational to the concept of the free exercise of religion, [and] a governor may not favor exercises of religion he agrees with while rejecting those he does not.”
The governor’s office pointed to Parson’s briefing on May 1, when in response to a question about pairing no-excuse absentee balloting with a requirement for voters to present photo ID, the governor said he’s “probably much more lenient” to the idea of no-excuse absentees than to changing other voting regulations. Parson also said it’s “too early” to start making decisions about the issue for November’s elections.
“We’ve been at this for 50 days,” Parson said, referring to the state’s response to the pandemic. “And I think to start making decisions for next year’s elections or for November’s elections, I think we’re too early to do that right now.”
Missouri’s American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking to clarify the state’s absentee voting rules so that all Missourians have the same options, no matter where they reside. The state’s lawyers are seeking to dismiss the lawsuit for a number of reasons, including their belief that the pandemic is not a good enough excuse to avoid voting in person, according to Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri.
The rabbis’ strategy of citing their religious beliefs is a viable path forward for religious voters who think it is immoral to gather at a polling place in the upcoming months, Rothert said, but it’s not a fully satisfactory solution.
“Many people have very good reasons that have nothing to do with religion not to want to gather with a crowd in a small place during this pandemic,” Rothert told HuffPost.
Neiss said she’s glad that Missouri has a religious exemption built in for requesting absentee ballots. But she also thinks Missourians shouldn’t need to have a deeply held religious belief to vote absentee during the pandemic.
Since 2010, the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis ― an umbrella group that represents 33 member agencies in the region ― has supported allowing all Missourians to request absentee ballots without needing to provide an excuse, she said.
“Voting is a fundamental right and the very foundation of our democracy. We should be doing everything within our power to make it as easy as possible for people to vote and enhance access to voting for all citizens,” she said.
“The idea that anyone should ever feel that they need to sacrifice anything to vote is astounding to me, and the notion that what people might need to sacrifice is their health, personal safety or peace of mind is contemptible.”
This story has been updated with comments from the Missouri secretary of state’s office.
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