An appeals court Wednesday will consider whether a St. Louis woman can run as a state representative candidate even though she didn’t register to vote until shortly before she declared her candidacy.
Natalie A. Vowell has lived in St. Louis since 2010 and has lived in the 78th House District since 2011. According to her brief, she had previously refused to register to vote because she was “intensely frustrated with the political status quo,” but in July 2013 she changed her mind and registered.
In March, Vowell declared her candidacy for the House and was to appear on the Aug. 5 Democratic primary ballot, challenging incumbent Rep. Penny Hubbard. But in May, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander’s office sent a letter to Vowell questioning her qualifications to run.
Among other things, the Missouri Constitution requires House candidates to have been a “qualified voter” for at least two years, which courts have previously interpreted to require the candidate to have registered to vote. As of the date of the general election, Vowell will have been registered for less than 16 months.
Vowell filed a lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court to contest the secretary’s decision, but Judge Jon Beetem dismissed the case, ruling that Vowell lacked standing because she didn’t meet the candidacy qualifications.
An appeal is pending in the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District. Judges James Welsh, Joseph Ellis and Karen King Mitchell are scheduled to hear the case in Kansas City on Wednesday afternoon.
Vowell’s suit argues that the secretary of state lacks the power to unilaterally bar a candidate from the ballot. State statutes allow a potential candidate’s qualifications to be challenged, but the deadline for such challenges passed April 24.
Upholding Kander’s decision “will effectively grant the Secretary vast discretion in regard to challenging candidates’ qualifications, inviting electoral chaos,” David E. Roland, an attorney for Vowell, wrote in a brief.
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, however, argues that the secretary of state is not “compelled to turn a blind eye” to Vowell’s deficiencies.
“Absent a review by the Secretary of State’s office to identify basic voter registration and residency information, the risk is high that the winner of a primary or general election will belatedly be found disqualified for office, resulting in the complication and expenses of special elections,” Solicitor General Jim Layton wrote in a brief.
Vowell also challenged the constitutionality of the two-year voter registration requirement, an argument that was also taken up in an amicus brief by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. They argued that the requirement violates the First Amendment and equal protection guarantees because it would deprive voters in Vowell’s district from the full range of choices about who would represent them. The ACLU added that if Vowell truly isn’t qualified, then it would be up to the House to refuse to seat her, rather than the secretary of state to refuse to put her on the ballot.
Courts have a long history of skepticism toward durational residency requirements, though the results in Missouri have been mixed. In 1976, the Court of Appeals Eastern District ruled in State ex rel. Burke v. Campbell that a man who moved from Missouri to Oklahoma and back again could not run for the House because his registration in Missouri had been reestablished less than two years before he ran for office.
Vowell urged the Western District not to follow that ruling, arguing that the Eastern District took only a “rudimentary” look at equal protection claims in that case, and no First Amendment claims were raised in that case at all.
But just two years after Burke, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a 10-year residency requirement for the Missouri state auditor’s office, saying such a lengthy requirement “does not bear a rational relationship to a legitimate State end.”
In his brief, Layton noted that Vowell initially sought review in the Missouri Supreme Court, but the matter was transferred instead to the Court of Appeals Western District.
That transfer, Layton wrote, “indicates that the [Supreme] Court concluded the arguments were not colorable — either because they were not properly raised, or because they lack merit.”
The case is Vowell v. Kander, WD77591.