As the election nears and many people are thinking about whether to vote in person or by mail, KSMU interviewed Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller.
The Missouri Legislature passed a law in the spring that allows anyone in the state to vote using a mail-in ballot, but they must have that ballot notarized.
Absentee ballots are different than mail-in ballots —and absentee ballots are available to those who meet certain requirements. There are some people eligible to vote absentee who will have to have their ballots notarized. And absentee ballots can be cast by mail or in person.
In the middle of a pandemic and with people worried about going to polling places, Schoeller said his office is seeing a record number of requests for absentee and mail-in ballots.
"In 2016, we mailed a total of about 3,000 ballots to voters," said Schoeller. "We're at well over 12,000 now that have been mailed to voters."
Due to the increased volume, he said it’s taken longer to get requests processed and ballots mailed. But ballots were expected to start arriving in Greene County voters’ mailboxes Wednesday.
Schoeller said they’re seeing a steady stream of people voting absentee at the Greene County Elections Center.
"We've seen, in terms of just the first week, we're just seeing a steady...stream of voters...that's going to make it better on election day for voters," he said. "It will help prevent crowding and density in the polling location. It certainly will minimize that from what it could be if we had the majority of all our voters come out on Election Day, which they will, but we think that number will be smaller than it has been in years past because people are choosing to vote before Election Day."
Schoeller said his office is making some changes to try to prevent overcrowding at polling locations on November 3. For one thing, he’s worked with Missouri State University officials to make voting safer at the central polling location on campus.
"They have worked with us to move the central polling location that's normally at the Welcome Center to JQH Arena, which will help us in terms of the social distancing. People can easily get in line and be socially distanced apart, which, at the Welcome Center, would have been much harder for voters to be able to do," he said.
If ballots arrive at the county clerk’s office unsigned or not notarized when they’re required to be, they’ll be disqualified. But Schoeller said that doesn’t necessarily mean those voters’ decisions won’t count.
"We are going to do everything we can to make sure and follow up with the voter, and that's why we're encouraging voters go ahead and fill out your form now in terms of not only your ballot, but the outer envelope, and if it needs notarized, go ahead and do that and send it back in," said Schoeller. "But, if something is missing, like the signature or the notary, then we have time to follow back up with the voter to get that corrected. And, matter of fact, we have changed the form to highlight where the notary portion of it, as well as if you don't need a notary, that's highlighted as well--so that there's less confusion on behalf of the voter."
There’s a strict process that’s followed when mail-in ballots arrive at the County Clerk’s Office, according to Schoeller.
"When they arrive, we're going to check to make sure that the address is the same as where they're registered at. We're going to check to make sure that the signature is there and, if it needs the notary, if the notarization is there as well," he said. "If there is an issue, we will reach out back to the voter and try to get that corrected with the voter and then they will be underneath lock and seal until five days before the election and then we have absentee ballot teams that will begin the process of sorting. They will open up the envelopes. They will take the ballot out. They will separate the ballot from the envelope, and that will take place five days before the election and then on Election Day after everything's been prepared and separated, we will then begin to scan the ballots for tabulation at Election Day morning."
If you request an absentee or mail-in ballot and later decide to vote in person, you can’t just throw the ballot away. Schoeller said there’s a process you must follow.
"On our front page of our website for this office, we've got a 2020 Voting Options, and that's one of the questions we answer for voters is: We understand sometimes something happens. You don't get that in the mail as quickly as possible. What we're asking the voter to do is that, if it's an absentee ballot, just bring that ballot back with you to the office, and you can drop that absentee ballot off, filled out, here at the office," he said. "Or on Election Day, you can go to your polling location or central polling location. That ballot will be surrendered, and that's to make sure we keep the numbers correct in terms of ballots issued that day at the polling location. They will then issue the voter a new ballot. They'll fill that out and then...drop that in the tabulation equipment there at the polling location like every other voter. If it's a mail-in ballot and they are concerned it won't make it back in time--because they do have to mail that ballot--they just can't come back and drop it off at the office. If they look at the seven reasons that are there, and they believe that one of the reasons applies to them, they can bring that mail-in ballot back before Election Day. We will spoil that, issue them an absentee ballot to the voter and then they'll be able to vote. But if they don't believe one of the reasons applies to them, then, on Election Day, bring that ballot with you, and the same thing as the absentee ballot--that ballot will be spoiled, and the voter will be issued a new ballot to fill out that day."
President Donald Trump recently suggested that people who vote by mail should also try to vote in person. Schoeller explains the safeguards that are in place to prevent someone from voting twice.
"Well, we know that a voter who's been issued a ballot because that's entered in to our system," he said. "And, so, if they come in, again, that's why they need to bring that ballot with them and surrender that if they haven't voted. If they have voted, in that particular instance, you know, we're going to--for example, on Election Day, this is the best example I can give, we have had voters who have voted absentee that are very concerned it will not arrive back. We have an affidavit that they will sign essentially letting us know that they're casting one ballot and then we make sure and catch that ballot on their behalf and, so, it's not tabulated on behalf of that voter because the only ballots that that will happen with would be ballots that come in after Election Day voting starts. And, so, we do, on behalf of the voter, do everything we can to make sure that only one ballot is presented on behalf of the voter."
Those who fraudulently cast more than one ballot have committed a crime, according to Schoeller.
"If a voter is successful, that is a felony, and we will turn it over to the prosecutor. And the prosectuor has prosecuted one case in the past since I've been in office, and that person did lose their voting rights for a period of time. So, voters need to be very careful before they think about doing that," he said. "That is a felony, and our prosecutor has, in the past, prosecuted when that has happened."
Schoeller has this advice for voters as the election draws nearer.
"The deadline to request a ballot is October 21 by 5 p.m.," he said. "We will be encouraging voters a week before that, starting the 14th, that the deadline is coming if you need to have a ballot mailed to you, make your request now. We'll do everything we can when a ballot is requested on October 21st to get it to the voter as quickly as possible so they can mail it back, but we prefer them to have three weeks and not two weeks for that to be done."
Schoeller said at a recent press event that his office won't refuse anyone the right to vote if they won't wear a mask. He said the right to vote supercedes a mask. But he said his office is taking steps to try to keep voters safe if they choose to cast ballots in person.
"We'll have the social distance markers that are there on behalf of the voters to make sure they know how to keep socially distanced, and, again, just the addition of the four central polling locations since I've become county clerk, that has already helped tremendously because it's, in essence, kind of an outlet valve where not everyone is showing up at their assigned polling location. We now can have them go to essentially four other locations, and, of course, they can come to the courthouse, but we discourage voters from doing that because of the heaviness of phone calls and volume that's coming in that day. But, at the end of the day, we have four additional polling locations that really help the voter have another option, and that helps all the polling locations have less traffic because of that. And then, of course, we're continuing to make sure that people know that if they apply for absentee voting in-person or they want that no excuse mail-in ballot, we'll continue to encourage that as well."
There should be enough poll workers for the November 3 election, but Schoeller said they can always use more.
"That's been one of the encouraging things that has happened here in this past four to six weeks is people have really responded well. Facebook did a post about it, and we got an overwhelming number of applications from a campaign they did a number of weeks ago, but we've had a lot of different organizations and groups--parties--who have really encouraged their people to sign up to become election judges, and, so, we continue to welcome them because we understand, especially during the era of quarantine. You know, people may be impacted suddenly, and they're not going to be able to be there on Election Day. So, the more we have the better chance we have even on Election Day, to call someone and say, 'hey, we have a spot to fill. Can you come help us that day?' And, so, we continue to encourage people, if you're interested, please feel free to sign up."
For information about voting in Greene County, click here.