Lawsuit seeks to protect civic engagement groups’ right to register and assist Missouri voters

Jefferson City, Mo. -- Two nonpartisan civic engagement organizations sued the state of Missouri and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft in Cole County Circuit Court to block provisions of one of the nation’s most extreme laws restricting voter registration activity and distribution of absentee ballot applications. The law violates the right to core political speech by severely curtailing the ability to engage with voters. 

The plaintiffs, League of Women Voters of Missouri (LWVMO) and Missouri State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (MO NAACP), are represented by Campaign Legal Center, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri and the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition in the lawsuit.   

In May, the Missouri legislature passed H.B. 1878 through a rushed and opaque process which concluded in the final 24 hours of the legislative session. The law, which is set to go into effect on August 28, imposes severe restrictions on basic voter outreach and assistance efforts, which are backed by serious criminal sanctions. 

Specifically, the challenged provisions prohibit compensating people for voter registration activities and mandate that anyone who assists with more than 10 voter registration applications – which happens regularly at community engagement events – must both register with the state and be a registered voter themself, subject to criminal penalties. 

The law is so vague that simply offering reimbursement for parking or pizza to volunteers could put organizations at risk of violating the law. The law also prohibits "soliciting” a voter into obtaining an absentee ballot application, which denies eligible Missourians the help they need  to vote in a secure and convenient way. 

The statute does not define what it means to “solicit” an application. Failing to comply with these strict and confusing prohibitions could put innocent volunteers on the wrong side of the law and, in Missouri, violating election laws could mean losing the freedom to vote for life.

“These new restrictions limiting voter registration and absentee ballot assistance will add further detriment to Missouri’s election process which is already ripe with deeply rooted systemic barriers that impede access to the ballot of marginalized communities,” said Luz María Henríquez, Executive Director of the ACLU of Missouri. “Registering voters, at its core, is political speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Rather than enacting legislation to encourage and increase participation in the democratic process, the politicians in Jefferson City pass laws that criminalize voter engagement and mobilization efforts.”

Absent court action, H.B. 1878’s changes to Missouri’s election laws will be in effect for the November 8 general election, creating deliberate barriers to voter registration and absentee voting which will be most acute in communities of color. The restrictions on civic engagement organizations threaten their ability to hold community-based voter engagement events, obtain and retain volunteers to assist voters and chill their constitutionally protected political speech. 

“Because of these provisions, the Missouri NAACP will have to stifle our voter registration and absentee voting activities at the very time heading into the midterm elections when the NAACP would be otherwise engaging these communities in registration and absentee voting,” said Nimrod Chapel, Jr., President of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP. “The NAACP has led the fight for African American voting rights for generations. The disparities that still exist place our very livelihoods at stake. Missouri lawmakers have stripped us of critical ways to engage our communities. The NAACP is committed to free and fair elections where people of color are not targeted for exclusion.”

"The NAACP is dedicated to protecting the rights of voters. Missouri's new law would make it more difficult for civil rights groups to register voters, criminalize some efforts to encourage lawfully registered voters to cast ballots, and needlessly prevent some registered voters from voting,” said Janette McCarthy Wallace, general counsel of the NAACP. “Put simply, the law would suppress votes and disenfranchise voters." 

LWVMO and MO NAACP, as well as their volunteers and staff, reasonably fear that H.B. 1878 will criminalize many of their current and most basic voter outreach efforts. In fact, the bill’s language is so vague that the ban on absentee ballot solicitation could be used to criminalize a volunteer who tells a voter that will be out of town on Election Day that they can vote absentee. 

“Missourians just voted in a secure primary without the restrictions and requirements imposed by H.B. 1878, underscoring how much of a sham the law is. Instead of celebrating civic engagement groups for their work to encourage participation in our democracy, Missouri legislators criminalized basic voter outreach efforts,” said Danielle Lang, senior director of voting rights at Campaign Legal Center. “Civic engagement organizations help make sure every voice is heard, including voters of color who have been historically marginalized. Our laws should protect and expand the freedom to vote, not punish democracy’s do-gooders and make it more challenging for Missourians to register to vote or vote absentee.” 

“For over a century, the League of Women Voters of Missouri has worked to educate and empower voters, and we are proud of our members’ essential voter registration and education work,” said Marilyn McLeod, president of the League of Women Voters of Missouri. “This law criminalizes work we do regularly and, ultimately, harms Missouri voters who rely on the League’s work to ensure their voices are heard at the ballot box.” 

Many Missouri voters have been able to participate in our democracy thanks to the work of nonpartisan civic engagement groups who help people register to vote or apply for an absentee ballot. Instead of encouraging and supporting the work of these groups to drive voter turnout, Missouri legislators choose to criminalize basic voter engagement activities and restrict access to absentee voting.

“HB 1878 is breathtaking in the ways it undermines democratic participation in Missouri by criminalizing the activities of the very civic engagement organizations that help ensure underserved communities have access to the democratic process,” said Denise Lieberman, director and general counsel of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, which has lead statewide efforts to advocate against HB1878. “HB 1878 stands to halt voter registration drives and prevent organizations from getting absentee ballot applications to the communities who need it most.”

CLC, ACLU of Missouri and MOVPC, filed suit on behalf of LWVMO and MO NAACP challenging certain provisions of H.B. 1878 for violating those organizations’ rights to free speech, free association and due process enshrined in the Missouri Constitution.