The League of Women Voters of Missouri says they have reevaluated voter engagement activity since HB 1878 went into effect. (Katie Frankenbach/ League of Women Voters KC)

In a typical election year, groups in Missouri like the League of Women Voters would have volunteers out and about right now, registering new voters and dispensing advice such as how to request absentee ballots. But civic engagement groups are rolling back their activity as the Nov. 8 general election approaches, thanks to a new Missouri election law that took effect at the end of August.

The groups say the law, HB 1878, limits their constitutionally protected speech and keeps them from doing voter outreach that is part of their typical operations.  

The League of Women Voters of Missouri and the Missouri chapter of the NAACP filed two lawsuits against provisions in the new law, including the state’s new photo ID requirement and the law’s language limiting voter outreach. 

The law now requires that Missourians present a state-issued photo ID when they cast ballots, a measure that has been overturned numerous times in the courts. It also limited the number of voter registration applications a person can solicit without registering with the state. And it bans any form of compensation for volunteers who register voters. 

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft called the lawsuits silly when asked about them in August and said he thinks everyone should work together to improve access to the ballot and security in the voting system. 

“I don’t understand why we can’t all agree that we want to have access so that every registered voter can vote,” he said.  “We want to have security so it’s hard to cheat. And we want to have a system with credibility.” 

Ashcroft added: “It seems like sometimes there are just a lot of people that would rather cause problems than help us continue to make it better.”

After HB 1878 passed, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, released a new scorecard that ranks Missouri fourth among the states when it comes to what the think tank describes as “election integrity.”

But the League of Women Voters and Missouri NAACP in their lawsuits say the state law is so vague that in order to comply, they are limiting their voter engagement activities to avoid possible criminal prosecutions. Violations could subject someone to a felony conviction with the loss of the right to vote. 

The League of Women Voters now doesn’t suggest an absentee ballot as an option when speaking with prospective voters unless the person is specifically requesting information about absentee ballots. Instead, they direct them to their local election authority. 

“Well, because the law is so vague in the wording, we are being extremely cautious,” Marilyn McLeod, president of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, told The Beacon. “We’ve taken references to absentee ballots off of our materials, and that’s something that we really would want to help people with. It’s a free speech and a First Amendment issue.” 

She noted that much of the information the league is now fearful about sharing is already public. 

“For example, providing blank applications or information on how to do an absentee ballot, that’s public information that’s readily available on the secretary of state’s website,” she said. “That is purely public information that should be easily provided to anyone who asks for it, by anyone. And making this a criminal offense to me could not be more unconstitutional.” 

The law requires people who may register voters to sign up with the state as a “voter registration solicitor.” In their lawsuit, the NAACP and League of Women Voters argued that signing volunteers up as registration solicitors would be “burdensome and exclusionary.”

The LWV has so far received 130 confirmations of voter registration solicitor applications, according to McLeod, but the group expects the number to be much higher as they get more confirmations. 

She said overall the law has made their processes more cumbersome and some employees have had to step back from voter registration activities because of it. 

“The league has a policy now in terms of filling out a very special form with the secretary of state to be sure that every member who does voter registration complies,” McLeod said. “And that has created administrative issues that were not necessary before. All we want to do is make sure people register to vote and do our best at that. And so it has made our processes more complicated.” 

In the past, the league would reimburse mileage expenses for volunteers who drive long distances for voter registration events, like in rural areas. McLeod said that option is no longer available.

“It’s uncomfortable and we want to be sure not to do anything that’s illegal, so that’s why we’re having to take this step back,” she said. 

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MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...