WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, Nov. 4, a Missouri judge temporarily blocked four provisions of Missouri’s omnibus voter suppression law, House Bill 1878, that severely restricted the ability of individuals and civic organizations to engage in voter registration activities and partake in the distribution of absentee ballots applications. These provisions also imposed harsh criminal penalties on organizations and individuals who violated them, including fines, jail time and loss of one’s right to vote for life. The decision blocking these provisions stems from a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters of Missouri and Missouri NAACP challenging aspects of H.B. 1878 that prohibited individuals who solicit voter registration applications from being paid, required uncompensated individuals who solicit more than 10 voter registration applications to register with the secretary of state, mandated that all voter registration solicitors be registered to vote in Missouri and banned individuals or groups from asking voters if they want to fill out an absentee ballot application. The plaintiffs allege that these anti-voting provisions of H.B. 1878 violate the Missouri Constitution.
In Friday’s decision granting the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, the judge concluded that the plaintiffs have “‘a fair chance of prevailing’ on the merits” and that the plaintiffs face the “‘threat of irreparable harm’ absent an injunction…barring the enforcement of the Challenged Provisions.” The judge also held that the “Challenged Provisions will likely chill speech and advocacy related to voting and decrease participation in elections…Each of the Challenged Provisions unconstitutionally burdens—and indeed outright prohibits—core political speech.” He added that the defendants “failed to prove that the Challenged Provisions are narrowly tailored to serve any compelling state interests” and therefore fail to survive strict scrutiny — the highest standard of judicial review — under the Missouri Constitution. The judge refuted the defendants’ claims that the challenged provisions were necessary to prevent “election fraud,” noting that while “preventing election fraud is a legitimate and even compelling interest…the State has failed to demonstrate any evidence of election fraud in the State of Missouri that the Challenged Provisions could plausibly address.”
According to the opinion, the challenged provisions, in addition to violating the plaintiffs’ rights to free speech, expression, association and due process, “are unconstitutionally overbroad because Plaintiffs have and will continue to restrict and cease current constitutionally protected activities…related to voting…because they reasonably fear criminal sanctions under the Challenged Provisions.” Additionally, the opinion pointed out that H.B. 1878 fails to provide clear definitions of “solicitation” and “compensation,” thereby rendering the challenged provisions “impermissibly vague.” Finally, the judge stated that the “chilling effect of the Challenged Provisions threatens to cause increased voter confusion and decreased voter participation.” Ultimately, this decision is a major victory for Missouri voters and nonpartisan civic organizations whose members are indefatigable defenders of voting rights and who “play an essential role in encouraging and enabling all eligible Missourians to participate in our democracy.”
Notably, Friday’s decision to temporarily block these four provisions of H.B. 1878 is a not final decision on the merits. Litigation on the merits will continue before the trial court. Although the deadline to register to vote and to request an absentee ballot for the upcoming Nov. 8 midterm elections has already passed in Missouri, civic organizations and individuals can now register voters and assist them in requesting absentee ballots in future Missouri elections without fear of criminal penalties.