Can Missourians turn in unsent mail-in ballots at the polls? Depends on where you live

Voters lined up on Nov. 2 outside the Boone County Government Center to cast absentee ballots (photo by Rudi Keller/The Missouri Independent).

Lauri Ealom was still hard at work at the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners office on Friday at 7 p.m. ― as was most of the staff. 

And, they were exhausted.

“This is a nightmare,” said Ealom, the board’s Democratic director, in a phone call with The Independent Friday night. “This particular election has felt like 100 elections in one.”

Earlier in the day, the board tweeted out instructions for Kansas City voters who hadn’t mailed back their mail-in ballots yet. These ballots offer the option to vote from home without the excuse required by an absentee ballot ― but they must be notarized and returned in the mail.

At this point, the ballots will not arrive in time to be counted if they are mailed. But they can be “surrendered” at the Kansas City board’s main office in Union Station, the board stated in the tweet.

The clerk would then “spoil” or void the ballot and give the voter a new ballot to vote in person.

The board also wrote, “Mail-in ballots CANNOT be surrendered at the polls.”

The tweet set off a flurry of questions — and objections — among voting advocates who have been telling voters to go to their polling places to surrender their mail-in ballots.

“All voters should have a right to surrender their ballots at the polls and cast a ballot on Election Day,” said attorney Denise Lieberman, who coordinates the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.

As it turns out, Kansas City isn’t alone. While most counties are allowing mail-in ballots to be surrendered at the polls today, many others say voters need to go to the election authorities’ main offices.

Adding to the confusion: Staff in six mostly rural county clerk’s offices reached by The Independent on Monday afternoon said they wouldn’t be allowing voters to turn in their mail-in ballot in person at all on Election Day. One county clerk called back later in the day to say the policy had been changed and mail-in ballots could now be turned in at the main office. 

Maura Browning, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, said the state law governing mail-in voting — which the legislature approved earlier this year in response to concerns about in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic — does not address spoiling or surrendering ballots. 

However, Browning said Ashcroft held a conference call a month ago with election officials to explain that they had the option to allow voters to surrender their mail-in ballots and vote in person instead. 

“This is all new,” Browning said. “Missouri’s 116 election authorities have done an amazingly wonderful job navigating this ever-changing landscape.”

‘Confusing’ law

Crystal Hall, president of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities

Crystal Hall, president of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, has been telling election officials to allow voters to surrender their mail-in ballots at the polls. She was surprised to hear that many counties are giving voters a different instruction.

“For convenience of the voters, I just assume that the poll workers get them taken care of and let them vote and be on their way,” Hall said. “If they took the time to request the mail-in ballot, they were probably concerned about being at the polls in the first place.”

However, the law is confusing, Hall said, and she understands how people could be interpreting it differently. 

Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon said in order to surrender a mail-in ballot, the change must be made by someone at the clerk’s office on their central computer to allow the issuance of an in-person ballot. That’s why going to the main office is the “fastest way to do it,” she said. 

However, she is still allowing Boone County voters to surrender their mail-in ballots at the polls, she said. It will just take a bit longer.

Hall said the association would like to see more guidance on this issue, but she doesn’t think there is much the secretary of state’s office can do. The problem is the law, she said.

“When they wrote the law, they did it so fast there is nothing clearly written on what the procedures would be for us,” Hall said. “They drew up the house plans and didn’t give any instructions. It’s like trying to put something from IKEA together without a guide.”

A right to vote

Elad Gross, a lawyer and former Democratic candidate for attorney general, was surprised when he saw the tweet from Kansas City’s election board. 

He said he’s been recording podcasts on voting information and interviewing election officials in different counties, and the question on what to do with an unsent mail-in ballot has been one of the most frequently asked questions for these officials.

“Every single one of them said, ‘Yes, don’t throw it away. Bring it to the polling place, you’ll be able to surrender it there and you’ll be fine,’” Gross said. “So I just thought that that was the case everywhere ― until literally Friday, with Kansas City.”

So after seeing the Kansas City election board’s tweet, Gross organized an team of volunteers to call every single one of Missouri’s 116 local election authority offices over the weekend to find out how they are handling this question. 

“Everyone was nice and willing to answer questions,” Gross said of the election authorities. “There was a lot of confusion around this particular issue.” 

As of Monday at 4 p.m., Gross said the informal survey found that more than 40 percent of counties are saying that voters need to go to the election authorities’ main offices, just like Kansas City, and not their polling places. His Votemissouri.org site includes the survey results and contact information for each local election authority.

In many parts of Missouri, Gross said there weren’t many mail-in ballots requested. In some of the smaller counties, Gross said the clerks pointed out that they knew exactly how many people requested them — and in many of those counties, all those ballots were all accounted for. 

Addressing the concerns on social media on Friday, the secretary of state’s office said in a tweet, “Missouri’s election system is decentralized. Each of 116 local election authorities can process in their own way. The SOS does not have authority to tell elected/appointed election authorities how to handle it. Best advice? Contact your LEA (local election authority) to find out what they want you to do.”