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Opinion: Time is running out for election integrity reform in Missouri

Since early this year, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s website has featured a countdown banner, indicating the days, hours, and minutes lawmakers have remaining to pass election integrity reform. With only a few weeks left in session, it should serve as a reminder to lawmakers that now is the time to act on election reform legislation. 

As Election Day 2020 turned into election week, voters were left with more questions and concerns as the dust settled, and many walked away frustrated by and disillusioned with the process. Now we are in the final stretch of the 2022 legislative session — and the clock is ticking, literally, for lawmakers to secure Missouri’s elections with one of several reforms currently under consideration in the state Senate. 

One reform, in particular, would protect our election processes from being privately funded by special political interest groups and corporations. Nationwide, and more specifically right here in the Show-Me State, we saw a billionaire with a political agenda infiltrate and manipulate our elections. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg funneled more than $400 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative through the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) to 2,500 election offices nationally. Calling them COVID-19 response grants, these “Zuckerbucks” were supposed to be primarily used to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) for poll workers. 

Missouri received $9 million of this grant money. However, less than 5 percent of the money was spent on PPE. Rather, the funds were disproportionately distributed to left-leaning districts with the effect of boosting voter turnout. 

Missouri’s 2nd congressional district received one of the largest grants in the state, and the results were profound: Republican Congresswoman Ann Wagner received fewer votes in St. Louis and St. Charles counties than she received in 2018, while the Democratic voter turnout for the race increased by a stunning 32 percent over the previous election cycle. Yet, right next door in Jefferson County — which received no Zuckerbucks grants — vote margins conspicuously followed past political trends. 

Other states saw equally egregious things happen in their elections that should serve as a warning to voters in the Show-Me State. The massive increase in absentee voting caused by the pandemic made the need for better ballot security abundantly clear. Drop boxes in Michigan were left unlocked and unsupervised, with some communities disturbingly finding fake drop boxes in the neighborhood. In Los Angeles and Boston, ballot drop boxes were set on fire by arsonists, with ballots and citizens’ right to vote going up in smoke at the same time. 

Prefilled absentee ballot applications caused massive headaches in Iowa, our neighbor to the north. Thousands of prefilled absentee ballot applications were voided because they were sent out with personal identifiers prefilled, rendering it impossible to verify if the individual whose name was on the application was the one who mailed it. Similarly, even further north in Alaska, voters received ballot applications with inaccurate names and addresses. 

Less than 60 percent of American voters were confident that ballots would be accurately cast and counted in the 2020 election. If Americans don’t trust the election process, they are far less likely to participate in it. And this is a dangerous problem for a nation whose form of government hinges on lively and widespread civic engagement. 

The Missouri Legislature, however, has a chance to flip the script and restore security, confidence, and transparency to Missouri elections. One way they can do this is by banning Zuckerbucks outright. Florida was one of the first states to do so, and Virginia, Alabama, South Dakota, and Mississippi also joined more than a dozen other states that recently banned private funding for public elections with bipartisan support. 

The legislature should also take the proactive step of securing ballot drop boxes and banning prefilled ballot applications. Kentucky’s Democratic governor recently signed legislation requiring drop boxes to be secured and monitored in government buildings at all times. Smoldering drop boxes or prefilled absentee applications with typos weren’t major problems in Missouri in 2020 like in other states, and we have an opportunity to ensure that they aren’t in the future.

Legislators can rest assured that they’re not only doing the right thing by protecting Missouri elections, but also the popular thing: Missourians of both parties overwhelmingly support measures that will secure elections. Nearly three-quarters of voters oppose allowing government election offices to accept funding from private individuals. Similarly, 72 percent of Missouri voters support requiring ballot drop boxes to be securely monitored and recorded through video surveillance at all times. 

If the legislature fails to act on strong election reform this session, Missouri’s next few elections are at stake: This fall, it could be another West Coast billionaire injecting money into our elections. It could be our drop boxes on fire. Or it could be our state in the headlines with thousands of invalid and incorrect prefilled absentee ballot applications. 

As a lifelong Missouri voter, I want to be able to go to the polls in November knowing my vote is secure and that it will be fairly counted — and I want that for my fellow Missourians, too. 

The need for election integrity reform in Missouri is apparent, and the stakes are high. With the support of voters across the state on their side, this is prime time for the legislature to bring security, confidence, and transparency back to Missouri’s elections. But they need to act now.