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Missouri voter rights case in the hands of appeals panel

(AP) — With the election just three weeks away, a federal appeals panel in St. Louis is expected to rule soon on whether Missourians casting mail-in ballots can drop them off in person, despite a state regulation requiring them to be received through the mail.

U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes in Kansas City issued on Friday a temporary restraining order allowing voters to return mail-in ballots in person, saying any harm or cost to the secretary of state’s office was minimal, “especially when weighed against the risk of total disenfranchisement of Missouri voters.”

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, said in a statement that he was “disappointed a federal judge decided to legislate from the bench and overturn the will of the people, through their elected representatives, to have safe and secure elections.”

But a day after his initial ruling, Wimes granted Ashcroft’s request for a temporary stay, pending a ruling by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It’s unclear when the three-judge panel will issue its ruling.

Amid concerns about voting during the coronavirus pandemic, Missouri lawmakers approved in the spring a plan allowing anyone to vote by mail. One aspect of the law prohibits dropping the ballot off in person.

The new law got its first test in the August primary election. Denise Lieberman, attorney for the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, said Monday that the lawsuit was based on concerns raised by voters after the primary.

“This relief will allow voters to be able to ensure that their ballot is received in time to be counted under Missouri’s very strict receipt deadlines,” Lieberman said.

Another provision of the Missouri law was the subject of a different ruling Friday. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed the state could require absentee ballot envelopes to be notarized. The voting rights groups had sued in state court over that provision, claiming that forcing people to use a notary creates a risk of exposure to the virus.

The state law approved earlier this year includes an exception allowing “at risk” people such as the elderly, those with certain health conditions and those living in long-term care facilities to vote absentee without their ballot envelopes’ being notarized.

Lieberman said the Missouri Supreme Court ruling could not be appealed.

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