ST. LOUIS — Absentee and early voting is available to more people in the St. Louis region than ever before. It’s a great opportunity for voters who want to be sure that their ballot gets in on time, without a notary or the rush of Election Day crowds.
That opportunity is harder to access for voters who don’t have a car. The I-Team found that absentee and early voting sites all over St. Louis and the Metro East are far from voters who need to use public transportation to get around, forcing them to expose themselves to the risk of COVID-19 for an hour or more to cast their vote.
County absentee and early voting locations leave out the eight ZIP codes where the fewest people own a car, according to the American Communities Survey from the Census Bureau.
For residents who use public transportation in Pagedale, getting to the closest absentee voting locations at the St. Louis County Library’s Mid-County Branch or at the North County Rec Center can be an hour or longer, round-trip. More than 30% of households in that ZIP code don’t own a car.
In the Metro East, residents in the two ZIP codes with the fewest car owners can’t ride the bus all the way to their closest early voting site. There’s no bus line to The Rec Complex of Fairview Heights on Bunkum Road. The trip to vote there from Fairmont City, in an area where 41% of households don’t have a car, takes at least an hour on public transit, including almost a half hour of walking.
Risking COVID-19 to vote
Denise Lieberman, non-partisan election protection coordinator with the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, takes calls from concerned voters as part of the Election Protection Hotline. She said they’ve brought up the challenge of getting to a polling place in the middle of a pandemic.
"What we know is this: no voters should have to choose between protecting their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote,” she said.
St. Clair County Clerk Thomas Holbrook told the I-Team that COVID-19 has made it much more difficult to find places to hold early voting events, between the reduced occupant capacity rules and safely accommodating voters with disabilities.
“St. Clair County tries to meet its voters needs beyond what the State requires and has for as long as I’ve been the County Clerk,” he wrote in an email statement. “Our Courthouse sets on the hub of mass transit routes in St. Clair County and is an early voting poll place as well as a site that opens weeks before the other both temporary and permanent early voting locations.”
Lieberman pointed out that voting in person before Nov. 3 is especially helpful for people who don’t have access to a car, can’t take time off from work on Election Day, or have to take care of a relative.
"You have to look beyond the letter of the law, and you have to really look at how people are experiencing the process themselves. And so when people don't have access to transportation, when these locations are not on available public transportation routes or if they require two or three different bus lines to get there, what you are effectively doing is cutting out people access to this process,” she said.
Eric Fey, Democratic Director of the St. Louis County Board of Elections, told the I-Team, “We selected sites that were free, that we knew we could get access to.” Some locations they used in the past were no longer available, including the Board of Elections’ previous office close to the Maplewood-Manchester Transit Center.
He added that voters should keep in mind that sometimes the easiest absentee polling place to get to on public transit might not be the closest.
"Overall I think this pandemic has helped people realize that we need to make changes to our voting and election systems and that there are many ways that we can make voting more accessible, while still ensuring the integrity safety and security of everybody's vote,” Lieberman said.
Help for voters on the way to the polls
Lieberman advised voters to reach out to the Election Protection Hotline if they have any questions or concerns about their right to vote. Their number is 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683).