Missouri’s Omnibus Election Law Unpacked
In 2021, a steady stream of restrictive voting laws flowed from Republican-controlled state legislatures. The massive laws that created numerous restrictions at once out of populous states like Florida, Georgia and Texas captured the most attention. These are called omnibus bills because they cover a range of topics in a single piece of legislation.
A year later, Missouri is catching up. In June 2022, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) signed House Bill 1878, a sweeping overhaul to the state’s election code that reads like a fantasy novel for right-wing election conspiracists, into law. Here’s what’s in the 58-page bill and why it’s already facing two legal challenges.
What does H.B. 1878 do exactly?
H.B. 1878 creates a strict photo ID requirement.
Under Missouri’s previous voter ID law, voters had a range of options to prove their identity at the polls; in addition to government-issued IDs, voters could present student IDs, voter registration cards, a copy of utility bills or bank statements. H.B. 1878 repeals all of those previously accepted forms of identification except for a nonexpired government-issued photo ID, such as a Missouri driver’s license or passport.
If a voter lacks proper ID, they can cast a provisional ballot that won’t be counted unless they return within the same day to present valid ID or if an election official matches the ballot signature with a signature on file. (Signature-matching is an error-prone process that often results in the over-rejection of valid ballots.)
This is not the Missouri Legislature’s first attempt at imposing strict voter ID requirements. A parallel law that similarly required a government-issued photo ID was struck down in January 2020 for violating the Missouri Constitution.
H.B. 1878 bans the use of drop boxes.
Unlike Missouri, 36 states and Washington, D.C. permit “no excuse” mail-in voting or conduct elections entirely by mail. Missouri remains one of 14 states that requires a particular reason or excuse to vote absentee (in Missouri, absentee voting encompasses voting early in person or by mail), such as being out-of-state on Election Day.
H.B. 1878 goes even further — the law bans drop boxes in the state. Drop boxes are special, secure containers where voters can conveniently drop off completed and signed absentee ballots. An AP survey recently confirmed that even in 2020, an election year where a significant increase in voters utilized drop boxes, there were no widespread problems with the use of drop boxes. Nonetheless, drop boxes have become the illogical target of GOP lawmakers across the country.
H.B. 1878 will phase out, and eventually prohibit, the use of certain electronic voting machines.
The law revises the election code so that, “Beginning January 1, 2023, the official ballot shall be a paper ballot that is hand-marked by the voter.” Additionally, the law will prohibit the use of touch screen direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines after Jan. 1, 2024. (It appears that H.B. 1878 retains an exception for “equipment that is designed for accessibility,” as required under the Help America Vote Act of 2002.)
A DRE machine allows voters to mark their ballots, usually with a touch screen or buttons, and the machine stores the votes in its memory and tabulates the results. Paperless DRE voting machines have undisputed shortcomings, so an increasing number of DREs across the country now maintain a paper trail. H.B. 1878’s blanket ban on these machines, without attempts to strengthen pre-existing technology, ties into a larger trend of conspiracies about electronic voting machines.
H.B. 1878 prohibits election administrators from receiving private donations to help run elections.
With Missouri’s ban on private money for election administration, the state joins a growing list of GOP-controlled states that have banned or curtailed private election grants. In 2020, the Center for Technology and Civic Life ran a crucial grant program for election offices across the country; this included $350 million donated by Mark Zuckerberg. The animosity from conservatives towards Zuckerberg and Facebook has created a swell of legislation aimed at preventing future grants. The problem is, these grants are often a lifeline for underfunded election offices across the country. By depriving election administrators of the resources they require, lawmakers are only making our elections less secure and exacerbating the problems of long lines, understaffing and slow counting.
H.B. 1878 curtails the work of civic engagements organizations.
In a country where over 60 million eligible voters are not registered to vote, third-party voter registration organizations (3PVROs) play an important role. These groups, often nonpartisan, help fill in the gap when states have failed to engage potential voters.
H.B. 1878 makes it harder for 3PVROs and other individuals focused on voter registration to do their work. First, the law prohibits individuals who solicit voter registration applications from being paid for their efforts. “Solicit” is generally understood to mean distribute or encourage people to fill out applications, though the law notably does not define the word. H.B. 1878 requires individuals who solicit more than 10 voter registration applications to be over 18, a registered Missouri voter and signed up with the Missouri secretary of state as a voter registration solicitor (a designation that requires re-registration every election cycle). Further, under H.B. 1878, no individual or group can ask voters if they want to fill out an absentee ballot application. Violations of these provisions can result in criminal charges.
H.B. 1878 includes some other provisions that leave us scratching our heads.
- Throughout its text, H.B. 1878 allocates more authority to the Missouri secretary of state. In addition to conducting audits, the chief election officer is now authorized to withhold funding to local officials if they are found in violation of certain provisions — namely the ban on private donations or failing to conduct a cyber security review every two years.
- For some reason, the Missouri Legislature decided to do away with the state’s presidential primary, instead replacing it with a caucus system. Only Iowa, Kentucky (Republican Party only) Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming still conduct presidential caucuses — a dwindling number as caucuses are well known to discourage widespread participation.
- There was a positive, pro-voting provision in the law: H.B. 1878 authorizes two weeks of early in-person voting for any voters, which Missouri calls in-person absentee voting. Not so fast though…the GOP lawmakers tied this early voting period to the voter ID requirement, so if the voter ID requirement is found to be invalid, this provision will subsequently be removed from the legislation. Does that mean the bill sponsors anticipate their voter ID law might be unconstitutional? And they plan to take out one of the few provisions that was a compromise with Democratic lawmakers if that happens?
Two lawsuits are already challenging the new law.
The new law took effect on Aug. 28, after the Aug. 2 primary but in time for the Nov. 8 general election. It is already facing two lawsuits in state court.
In August, the League of Women Voters of Missouri and the Missouri NAACP filed a lawsuit against multiple provisions of H.B. 1878 for violating the Missouri Constitution. The lawsuit focuses on four provisions in particular that all have to do with voter registration activities and outreach. Specifically, the lawsuit challenges the provisions that:
- prohibit individuals who solicit voter registration applications from being paid,
- require uncompensated individuals who solicit more than 10 voter registration applications to register with the Missouri secretary of state,
- mandate that all voter registration solicitors be registered to vote in Missouri and
- ban individuals or groups from asking voters if they want to fill out an absentee ballot application.
The lawsuit argues that the challenged provisions violate the right to free speech, free association and due process under the state constitution. Additionally, the plaintiffs note that the threats of criminal prosecution will “harshly chill and restrict…commonplace community-based voter engagement.”
Just two days later, a second lawsuit was filed by a similar group of plaintiffs, this time against H.B. 1878’s voter ID strict requirements. The plaintiffs argue that the new restrictions violate several provisions of the Missouri Constitution, including the guarantee of free and open elections, right to vote and equal protection. The lawsuit points to the similar law struck down in 2020.
On Friday, Sept. 16, a hearing will be held regarding a motion to expedite the lawsuits and on Sept. 23, a hearing to try to block the challenged provisions before the November election. As the pro-voting groups challenging this law in court have asserted, H.B. 1878 is projected to tangibly restrict political participation. Partisan actors must be happy though — the law skillfully touches upon all of the GOP’s favorite election-related talking points.