Sitting outside Monarch Coffee on Broadway Boulevard in midtown Kansas City, Jennifer Wilding just started her first shift with Curbside Notary, a new Kansas City-based service providing free access to a notary for voters who want to vote by mail this year.
As concerns abound over the safety of voting this year, Wilding became a notary in August to make sure other voters wouldn’t find themselves in the position she was in during the Missouri primaries, when she had a hard time finding a notary to sign her mail-in ballot envelope and had to vote absentee in-person instead.
“I’m just glad Curbside Notary is doing all of this work to make this possible,” Wilding said. “It can be hard to find a notary. … And it’s just one more thing — voting ought to be accessible to everybody.”
In a year when election officials are expecting record turnout numbers and more voters want to vote by mail ahead of Election Day, access to a notary could mean the difference between someone casting their vote remotely and having to vote in person. During Missouri’s August primary, the voter turnout rate was 32.9%, up from the nearly 25% turnout from the August 2016 primary.
The increased need for notaries like Wilding and services like Curbside Notary comes after the Missouri legislature passed a law in June expanding access to mail-in voting without an excuse to all Missouri voters.
But voting by mail still requires the signature of a notary public — an official appointed by the state to serve as an impartial witness for the signing of important documents — in order for the ballot to count.
The change in Missouri’s voting laws made Kansas City resident and local notary Danielle Lehman think about the people who would be searching for a notary in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, Lehman had been busy running Curbside KC, which offered information on takeout and delivery services for over 1,200 restaurants across Kansas City. But as the need for that service decreased, Lehman thought about what she could do to help people navigate Missouri’s new voting laws.
Her solution: Transform Curbside KC into Curbside Notary by connecting Kansas City businesses with volunteer notaries to host on-site notary events.
Now, Kansas Citians interested in voting by mail before Nov. 3 can find a notary at local coffee shops, bakeries and breweries to have their ballot envelope notarized free of charge, with plexiglass shields in place to ensure safety between notaries and voters. In total, Curbside Notary has more than 60 planned events through Election Day, with about 175 notaries on the organization’s volunteer list.
“We want to do whatever we can to make sure that that person’s vote — that their ballot — isn’t rejected,” Lehman said.
‘If there’s one thing I can do’
The emergence of local services like Curbside Notary reflects the growing public interest in voting by mail ahead of Election Day and the desire to make that process as easy, accessible and safe as possible. With demand for notaries expected to grow in the upcoming weeks, many people in Missouri have become a notary just this year to serve that need.
“I started looking into the process of what it would take to become a notary, and I just decided, ‘I’m going to become a notary,’” said Megan Downs of Excelsior Springs, Missouri. She became a notary this year and is volunteering with Curbside Notary.
“If there’s one thing I can do this year, that I can say that I’m doing everything I can to help, then I’m going to do that.”
According to data provided by the secretary of state’s office, about 1,300 new notaries have been commissioned in the last year in Missouri, making for a 1.8% increase. In total, there are about 70,000 notary publics in the state. Further analysis of the secretary of state’s online public notary database finds that 377 people in Jackson, Clay and Platte counties have become a notary this year.
Pat Kinsel, CEO of Notarize, a national organization that provides online notary services, said a notary acts as an impartial witness who has been given authority by the state to create official records. In addition to serving as a witness to ballots, a notary signature can be used in financial transactions, like signing a mortgage, or in legal documents, like court documents and wills. With mailed ballots, a notary signature is one assurance that a ballot is valid.
“The purpose that they serve is really identity verification,” Kinsel said. “And then creating a record that people can trust.”
Applications to become a notary public in Missouri are overseen by the secretary of state’s office. To qualify as a notary in Missouri, a person must be at least 18 years old; live in or work in the state; be a legal U.S. resident; read and write English; not have had their notary commission revoked in the past five years; and not have been found guilty of any felony or offense involving “dishonesty or moral turpitude” in the past five years. Applicants must then take an online or written training course, apply for a commission, pay a $25 application fee and purchase a notary public surety bond. The last step is being sworn in at a local courthouse.
Missouri is one of the only states that differentiates between absentee and mail-in ballots — voters must have an excuse to vote absentee, while mail-in voting is available to any voter and does not require an excuse. All mail-in ballots and some absentee ballots in the state require a notary signature on the ballot envelope to be counted — only those voting absentee with a COVID-19-related excuse, people who are ill or incapacitated, and those caring for such ill or incapacitated people do not need a notary. The state’s notary requirement makes it an outlier in the U.S.: Only Alabama, Alaska and Mississippi have similar mandates for mailed ballots.
According to Missouri law, mailed absentee ballots must be notarized free of charge; there is no law explicitly prohibiting notaries from charging to sign a mail-in ballot envelope. The Missouri secretary of state’s website includes a list of notaries who will serve as a witness to mailed ballots free of charge. Currently, the list includes 402 notaries across more than 60 counties.
‘Creating barriers and boundaries’
Although more Missourians have access to voting by mail this year, securing a notary can be easier said than done, Downs said. Common places to find a notary, like a bank or an insurance company, may be offering limited services right now because of the pandemic, and voters may not know how to find one.
“It is purposely creating barriers and boundaries for people to complete their vote, and especially people who don’t have access to things like a notary,” Downs said.
Missouri’s notary requirement is currently at the center of litigation arguing that the mandate be struck down on the basis that it unduly burdens voters. In April, the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Missouri and three registered voters sued the state of Missouri, challenging the notary mandate and the requirement that voters provide an excuse to vote absentee.
The complaint argues that the notary mandate violates the right to vote under the Missouri Constitution. After the circuit court ruled in the state’s favor in late September, the plaintiffs appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Denise Lieberman, general counsel for the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition and counsel on the current court case, said requiring a notary means voters must potentially put their health at risk in the middle of a pandemic.
“At minimum, requiring voters to have to physically go out and meet with a notary in person, in a way where social distancing is not possible, in a way where parties have to touch the same objects — the ledger, the ballot envelope, the pens — impermissibly puts voters in the position of having to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote,” Lieberman said.
The case also argues that the notary mandate disproportionately hurts people who lack the time, access, money and flexibility to seek out a notary.
“The lack of access to notaries not only makes it difficult for people to comply,” Lieberman said, “but it disproportionately makes it more difficult for low-wage workers, voters of color, people without access to transportation.”
State officials argue that it’s an important safeguard against voter fraud. However, evidence of voter fraud is limited. A Washington Post analysis found only four demonstrated cases of voter fraud out of 135 million votes during the 2016 presidential election — that’s 0.000003% of ballots cast.
Aside from the notary mandate, Missouri has other safeguards in place to protect against mail voter fraud and validate a voter’s identity, Lieberman said. When Missouri voters fill out the application to request a mail-in ballot, their local election authority must confirm a voter’s address and registration information before mailing them a ballot. The next step in the process — filling out and signing the ballot — is another way for the voter to attest to their identity and eligibility.
“There’s a multi-part process, a multi-confirmation process that is already undertaken,” Lieberman said. “That really makes a notary requirement superfluous and meaningless, in particular, in the light of the safety risk it poses to voters.”
Lehman said the positive response to Curbside Notary, from volunteers to voters, reflects the passion within the Kansas City community for their fellow residents to exercise their right to vote. On the other hand, she said, there shouldn’t be a need for it in the first place.
“The whole process of voting by mail relies on people like us to pay the fees to become a notary, and then volunteer our evenings and weekends and whatever other free time we have to notarize people’s ballots out of the kindness of our heart,” Lehman said.
“I think it’s incredible that so many people are willing to do that, but really unfortunate that we’re one of just a couple of states that is requiring that and is really just creating an additional obstacle for people who want to be able to vote safely.”
The last day to request an absentee or a mail-in ballot is Oct. 21. Absentee and mail-in ballots must be received by your local election authority by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3.
Celisa Calacal is the assistant editor at The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking for a notary? Check out these resources:
- Curbside Notary upcoming events
- All notary events are open to any Missouri voter, an appointment is not required. Carside Notary appointments are also available at select events.
- Missouri secretary of state’s 2020 notary list
- Missouri Voter Protection Coalition’s Notary Hub
- League of Women Voters Kansas City notary list
- Notaries in Kansas City and St. Joseph
- Community Notary Events calendar
- Notary events hosted by KC Parks Community Centers
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