An appeals court says a St. Louis woman can compete in August for a Missouri House seat, even though she didn’t register to vote until shortly before she declared her candidacy.
Candidates are required to have been registered to vote for at least two years. But the Court of Appeals Western District ruled Thursday that Secretary of State Jason Kander lacked authority to independently decide whether the candidate, Natalie A. Vowell, was qualified.
“As a ministerial officer, the Secretary of State is required to carry out his or her statutory duties to the letter of the law and must treat all persons filing properly executed legal documents with his office equally,” Judge Joseph Ellis wrote. Judges James Welsh and Karen King Mitchell concurred.
Vowell has lived in St. Louis since 2010 and 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 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 Rep. Penny Hubbard. But in May, Kander’s office sent a letter to Vowell questioning her qualifications.
The Missouri Constitution requires a House candidate 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.
The Western District said Thursday that Beetem was wrong to dismiss the case, as Vowell’s qualifications were “wholly irrelevant” to her challenge to Kander’s authority to investigate candidates. The court said the secretary of state’s function is “purely ministerial,” and his placing a candidate on the ballot was nothing more than “a certification that the declarant’s paper work is in proper order and was timely filed.”
The court added that such a rule “minimizes the partisan political mischief that can result from ministerial officers adjudicating candidate qualifications.” The court was careful to say in a footnote, though, that there was “certainly nothing in the record before this Court that would even remotely indicate any misconduct on the part [of the] Secretary of State in this matter, nor does this Court mean to intimate such in any way.”
Vowell’s qualifications still could be an issue. If she wins the August primary, an opponent in the November general election could challenge her voter registration. It’s also possible the House would refuse to seat Vowell.
David E. Roland, an attorney for Vowell, called the ruling a “solid win” for his client, particularly as the opinion was issued less than 24 hours after Wednesday’s arguments.
“I think the court hit the nail right on the head,” Roland said.
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office had argued that the secretary of state is not “compelled to turn a blind eye” to Vowell’s deficiencies and that allowing an unqualified candidate to win the seat would result “in the complication and expenses of special elections.” A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said the ruling was being reviewed.
Hubbard never challenged Vowell’s qualifications, and it’s too late for her to do so now. Hubbard, who is seeking election to her third term, didn’t immediately return a message left with her secretary at her Jefferson City office.
Vowell also had challenged the constitutionality of the two-year voter registration requirement, though the Western District didn’t address the issue. Roland, however, said that argument would resurface if Vowell’s qualifications are challenged down the road.
Roland — aided by an amicus brief from the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri — had 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.
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 re-established less than two years before he ran for office.
Vowell had 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.”
Roland said courts across the country have considered similar length-of-registration requirements and have nearly always struck them down.
“We’re confident that we’d prevail at that point, if it becomes necessary,” he said.
The case is Vowell v. Kander, WD77591.