By Gray Whitsett
This summer, Missouri state legislators approved wide-ranging legislation that imposes new requirements on registering to vote and casting a ballot, alters presidential primaries, and expands absentee voting ahead of Election Day. The new law, popularly referred to as HB 1878, was passed in the wake of the 2020 election to address unsubstantiated claims of election fraud. As with many overhauls to state election codes, HB 1878 has been the subject of significant criticism, namely for provisions that heighten voter ID requirements and limit civic engagement organizations from encouraging and assisting with voter registration. Each of these components is being challenged in state court
The complaint against restrictions on voter registration activity presents an interesting challenge under the Missouri Constitution.
In League of Women Voters of Missouri v. Missouri, the plaintiffs, which include the Missouri NAACP, have challenged four HB 1878 requirements affecting nonpartisan advocacy groups that engage in voter registration activity. The four provisions:
- Prohibit individuals from being paid or compensated “for soliciting voter registration applications”;
- Require individuals, regardless of compensation, to register with the state as “voter registration solicitors” if they solicit more than 10 registration applications;
- Require such registration solicitors to be registered Missouri voters; and
- Prohibit individuals and organizations from soliciting voters to complete absentee ballot applications.
The plaintiffs allege these provisions violate protections of free speech, free association, and due process of law guaranteed under the state constitution. Primarily, they claim that by targeting dissemination of information about and advocacy for voter registration, the state regulated speech based on its content, and because this constitutes political speech, the state infringed on “core protected expression.” This infringement is exacerbated by the unclear definitions of “compensation” and “solicitation” used in the statute, which they allege fail to provide fair notice to the public of what conduct would violate the law.
They further claim the law’s ambiguity creates severe administrative burdens and jeopardizes their “organizational mission[s].” Both organizations conduct significant voter registration activity throughout the state by employing a small number of salaried administrative staff and recruiting a large volunteer force. These volunteers are typically reimbursed for gas mileage and supplies, treated to food and snacks, and given organizationally branded materials like T-shirts, pencils, and clipboards to keep. In their suit, the League of Women Voters and the NAACP purport that the statute’s language of “compensation” may encompass these reimbursements and gifts, exposing all their volunteers to liability or depriving the organizations of basic volunteer recruitment incentives.
Perhaps more consequentially, the vagueness of “solicitation” leaves the organizations’ voter registration and absentee voting outreach programs in uncertainty. The plaintiffs contend it is unclear what constitutes a solicitation to register to vote or to vote absentee. While some interactions involve directly asking voters to register or vote absentee, the majority of outreach involves conventional voter registration drives where the public approaches a table or booth, asks a few basic questions, and completes a registration application. During the course of this interaction, volunteers often end up informing voters that they may be eligible to vote absentee based on what the voter says to them. The plaintiffs fear that solicitation, broadly defined, could ensnare all of these exchanges, which would require all volunteers to have to register with the state as “voter registration solicitors” and further expose volunteers to criminal liability.
The plaintiffs argue the requirement that solicitors be registered Missouri voters creates additional administrative burdens. Generally, it would require voter outreach groups to conduct a screening process for volunteers and prevent former felons, noncitizens, and anyone under 18 from being able to participate. It also would impede volunteers who may travel across state lines to support registration efforts, which may impact border cities like St. Louis and Kansas City. The plaintiffs claim these limits go to the heart of their organizations’ missions of involving the whole community in their advocacy and create logistical challenges that seem tailored to hampering their organizations’ functioning.
Regardless of the impacts of HB 1878, the plaintiffs’ case is striking because they are bringing claims under the state constitution’s voting rights guarantee, which the Missouri Supreme Court has previously said is “more expansive and concrete” than federal protections. Broadly speaking, the litigants’ hope that the combined rights of free speech and voting contained in the state constitution will render the law unconstitutional. While this approach will be necessarily limited to Missouri, it may reflect the broader call for voting rights groups to adopt a state-based approach to securing protections under the various voting provisions in state constitutions.
As the federal judiciary continues its relative disinterest in strengthening voting rights nationally, spectators are likely to see increased litigation at the state level. League of Women Voters may become one of the first of many such state battles, and a victory for the plaintiffs in a state dominated by election-skeptics may demonstrate how this strategy can bear fruit.