(ST. LOUIS) – Civil rights groups are suing Missouri state and local officials over a state election provision that disenfranchises voters with limited English proficiency or with disabilities who require assistance in casting a ballot.
MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), ACLU of Missouri, Missouri Protection & Advocacy Services, and Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, filed the suit on behalf of individual voters and groups that assist voters in that state. These include Missouri Protection & Advocacy Services, VozKC, as well as Susana Elizarraraz, Manuel Rey Abarca IV, and Barbara Sheinbein. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court Western District of Missouri Central Division.
“Like similar litigation MALDEF is currently pursuing in Arkansas, this lawsuit seeks to prevent the state from punishing some of democracy’s do-gooders – those who take time to assist voters who are informed and eager to cast a ballot,” said MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz. “Needing assistance in voting – and providing the same – is not fraudulent or a crime; instead, it is a demonstration of commitment to the essence of democracy.”
Attorneys argue that the restriction in Missouri’s current election law violates the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) that guarantees any voter who requires assistance in voting, including those with limited English proficiency or voters with disabilities, may bring a person of their choice to assist them with casting a ballot. The law impedes the ability of voters to participate in an election by limiting the number of voters an individual can assist to just one in an entire election, according to the complaint.
“The right to voting assistance by a person of one’s choice is essential to the voter’s ability to participate freely, yet Missouri law limits anyone from helping more than one voter in any election,” said Denise Lieberman, Director and General Counsel of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition. “Missouri’s assistance restrictions burden both voters who need assistance voting from their trusted assister of choice as well as the individuals and groups who wish to provide that assistance. We should be helping make voting more accessible not constricting options for assistance.”
Hundreds of thousands of potential voters could be burdened by Missouri’s current restrictive rule.
As of 2020, nearly 850,000 persons with disabilities and 125,000 Latino voters were eligible to vote in Missouri. While many of those eligible voters may require assistance, Missouri’s election law effectively prevents organizations from conducting broad voter-assistance by threatening prosecution.
“These restrictions are a part of deeply rooted systemic barriers that impede access to the ballot of marginalized communities; in this case the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of Missourians with a disability or who are not proficient in the English language,” said Luz María Henríquez, Executive Director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Not only do they deny eligible voters the right to be assisted by someone of their choosing in violation of federal law, but also prevent outreach from organizations to engage, educate, and assist by threatening to criminally penalize any individual who assists multiple voters.”
And unlike other states, Missouri polling sites are not required and do not provide information to voters about voting in languages other than English.
The lawsuit names Missouri Secretary of State John R. Ashcroft, Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners, St. Louis County Board of Elections, and the Boone County Clerk as defendants.