By Katie Kitchen
While literacy tests are no longer formally part of the U.S. election process, numerous laws, including a decades old law in Missouri, still result in similar forms of voter suppression. This law, Mo. Rev. Stat. § 115.44.3, has been in effect since 1977 and states, “No person, other than election judges and members of such voters’ immediate families, shall assist more than one voter at one election.” While this single sentence may seem like a small detail in terms of election procedure, in practice, some argue the law infringes on the rights of limited English proficient individuals and people with disabilities to vote.
One such person is Susana Elizarraraz’s mom. Elizarraraz’s mom is deaf, limited English proficient, and relies on Elizarraraz’s assistance to cast her ballot in each election. When Elizarraraz had to go out of town for work during an April 2022 election, her mother was unable to vote, as there was no one available to assist her due to the limitations of Missouri’s Single-Voter Assistance Restriction.
A group of Plaintiffs are currently challenging Mo. Rev. Stat. § 115.44.3 in Missouri Protection & Advocacy Services v. Ashcroft. The Plaintiffs in this matter are Missouri Protection and Advocacy Services (Mo P&A), VozKC, and three individuals who have been directly impacted by Missouri’s Single-Voter Assistance Restriction. One of those individuals is Susana Elizarraraz. Mo P&A is a non-profit public interest law firm focused on protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. VozKC is a volunteer organization that advocates for Latino communities and works with limited English proficient populations.
In the Complaint, filed June 22, 2022, the Plaintiffs assert that Mo. Rev. Stat. § 115.44.3 violates § 208 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the Supremacy Clause of the United States. Section 208 of the VRA states, “Any voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice.” Therefore, the Plaintiffs argue that the limitation included in Mo. Rev. Stat. § 115.44.3 hinders the ability of voters who require assistance to choose the individual who assists them, which can lead to an inability to exercise the right to vote entirely. Additionally, because Mo. Rev. Stat. § 115.44.3 is a state law that may infringe upon the VRA (a federal law), the Plaintiffs assert that it violates the Supremacy Clause, which generally states that federal law is the “supreme law of the land”.
The Plaintiffs make many compelling arguments regarding why challenging an election law from 1977 is prudent today. One reason is that the Latino population grew by nearly 50% across the St. Louis region since 2010, but Missouri does not offer election materials in languages other than English. Additionally, approximately 18.6% of Missouri’s eligible voting population are individuals with disabilities who are projected to be eligible to vote in Missouri in 2020. Thus, voter assistance for populations of limited English proficient voters and voters with disabilities in Missouri has become even more critical as the population changes. The non-profit communities are unable to have one volunteer for every individual who may need assistance, which is what would be required to abide by Mo. Rev. Stat. § 115.44.3. The Plaintiffs describe this situation as a choice between large groups of people being unable to exercise their right to vote versus having individuals risk criminal prosecution by violating the Missouri’s Single-Voter Assistance Restriction. What may seem like a small procedural matter can impact the ability of entire groups of minority populations to exercise their right to vote, which has concerning ramifications for democracy as a whole.
I will delve into the Answers filed by the Defendants as well as the Statement of Interest filed by the Department of Justice in future posts. From a brief glance, issues such as whether there is a private remedy to enforce § 208 of the VRA are likely to be raised. Additionally, it is worth noting that there is similar litigation in Arkansas challenging a law that prohibits individuals from assisting more than six voters in casting a ballot each election. As the cases progress, it will be interesting to see whether courts will invalidate all limitations to § 208, or if they will determine an acceptable threshold of how many voters it is reasonable for one person to assist within the boundaries of the VRA. This distinction may be a determining factor in the equitable ability of individuals with disabilities and/or limited English proficiency to exercise their right to vote.