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Voter advocates urge Parson to extend mail-in option

(AP) — Dozens of civil rights advocates, faith leaders and others urged Gov. Mike Parson on Friday to extend into next year a law allowing more people to cast their votes by mail to avoid the risk of contracting the coronavirus through in-person voting.

A letter signed by people representing nearly five dozen organizations asked Parson, a Republican, to use his emergency authority to extend the law he signed in June.

That law, set to expire on Dec. 31, allows those considered at high risk of the virus — people age 65 and older, residents of long-term care facilities and people with certain preexisting health conditions — to vote absentee without having their ballots notarized. Anyone else can cast a mail-in ballot but needs to get it notarized.

Without the special law, Missouri voters must provide an authorized excuse to vote absentee.

“As the pandemic continues to pose significant risks to Missourians, Governor Parson should extend the COVID-19 safe voting provisions to ensure that all Missourians can safely cast ballots in upcoming 2021 municipal elections,” Denise Lieberman, attorney for the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, said in a news release.

Parson’s spokeswoman, Kelli Jones, said in an email that the legislation that authorized absentee balloting would expire Dec. 31 and that state law “does not authorize the Governor to override the termination clause passed by the legislature.” She did not say if the governor would seek new legislation to cover some or all of 2021.

Several cities and towns, including St. Louis and Kansas City, have municipal elections in March and April.

The pandemic has taken a drastic turn for the worse since the fall. Hospitals across Missouri are at more than 75 percent capacity for inpatient and intensive care unit beds. Deaths from the virus have risen sharply. The state reported on Friday  3,723 new confirmed cases and 19 additional deaths. Since the pandemic began, Missouri has cited 360,330 cases and 4,853 deaths.

Deaths continue to mount at long-term care facilities. The St. Joseph News-Press reported that an outbreak last month at the Gower Convalescent Center resulted in the deaths of 20 residents.

Administrator Amberly Moore said the outbreak began when a resident with COVID-19 and dementia returned from a hospital stay and had contact with another resident.

“It’s been tough. We are still grieving the loss of our residents, our families are still grieving,” Moore said. “It’s super tough, we’re trying to do a lot of things to help them go through the process.”

In central Missouri, security has been stepped up at the Cooper County Public Health Center after a death threat on the department’s answering machine by someone upset about the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health director Melanie Hutton said the threat was left Tuesday. The sheriff’s office is investigating.

Hutton declined to disclose details but said the threat was “about COVID.”

“The disinformation that has been prevalent throughout this pandemic — that COVID is a hoax and it’s not real, and that COVID-related deaths are being falsified — is causing serious damage for individuals who are not able to discern real news from fake news,” Hutton said. “That is the driving theme behind the threat that we received.”

Hutton said the threat was curious because Cooper County has no mask mandate or other special provisions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. She believes county health officials, who also have faced threats and harassment in other areas, are “easy targets” for people angry about government responses to the pandemic.

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