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Federal Judge Orders Missouri to Change Voter-Registration System

A federal judge has ordered Missouri to alter its system for changing mailing address records for the purposes of voter registration, finding that the current system violates federal law.

(CN) - A federal judge has ordered Missouri to alter its system for changing mailing address records for the purposes of voter registration, finding that the current system violates federal law.

U.S. District Court Judge Brian Wimes’ ruling, filed Wednesday, partially granted a request for preliminary injunction to the League of Women Voters of Missouri.

The ruling declared that the state’s procedures by which license holders change their mailing address over the phone or online that do not offer voter registration services are in violation of the National Voting Registration Act (NRVA).

The current system only updates voter registration records for license holders who update their address in person, leaving those who make those changes online or via phone with out-of-date registrations. This, in turn, could cause unforeseen problems at the polls for voters who did not update their mailing address in person.

Wimes ordered that the state revert to the system that was in place before Aug. 1, 2017 in lieu of the current system that only offers registration services to license holders who change their address in person.

“While the Court is cognizant of the extreme nature of preliminary injunctive relief,” the ruling states, “the circumstances of this case suggest the public’s interest in the right to vote, and ensuring that state processes follow federal law, outweigh the public costs for the Defendants to comply with a preliminary injunction.”

The National Voting Registration Act requires states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote whenever applying for a new or renewed driver’s license or state ID. The stipulation of the law in question has to do with its requirement that states update a voter’s registration record when a voter updates their address information with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

According to Wimes and the League of Women Voters of Missouri, however, this had not been happening under Missouri’s current system.

The League of Women Voters first sued the state over the change-of-address issue back in April. They argued that the failure to update Missouri’s voter registration database would mean that as many as 200,000 Missourians annually would not have their vote counted because they moved from one county to another.

Wimes found that the group demonstrated that approximately 40,000 Missourians have used the forms at issue since the November 2016 general election.

The state argued that the changes in mailing address are not covered by the federal law because only a license holders’ residential address is listed on the face of their ID, not specifically their mailing address.

Wimes’ ruling, however, states that “the NRVA sets forth the voter registration services requirements; states may not determine with which change of address transactions they must offer registration services and which ones they may not.”

Wimes also found that whatever financial and staffing burdens the defendants claim reverting the system will place on the state are outweighed by the irreparable harm the plaintiffs face in the form of divested resources and the irreparable harm voters face in the form of disenfranchisement.

The ruling orders that the state must immediately send a mailing to all individuals whose current records reflect that they used the online or over-the-phone address changing processes since August 2017.

“The mailing shall provide all such individuals with the ready opportunity to update their voter registration information,” the ruling says.

This includes a Missouri voter registration application, directions to contact local election officials for specific polling place information and directions to contact the Missouri Secretary of State’s office for more information.

Wimes did, nevertheless, find that ordering the defendants to make all the necessary changes before the Oct. 10, 2018 voter registration cut-off would be impractical and unreasonable.

Missouri Secretary of State John Ashcroft’s office could not be reached via phone for comment after business hours Thursday evening.

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