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Supreme Court to hear challenge from removed candidate

The Missouri Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge from a would-be candidate for the Missouri House who was kicked off the ballot because she only recently registered to vote.

Rachel Johns filed as a Democrat for the 76th House District in St. Louis, seeking to challenge the incumbent state representative, Joshua Peters, who has held the seat since 2013. Whichever of the two wins the August primary would almost certainly get the seat, as no other candidates have filed to run.

In a lawsuit filed in April, Peters challenged Johns’ qualifications. She had not registered to vote until February 2015, and the Missouri Constitution requires candidates to have been qualified voters for at least two years as of the election date. On April 28, St. Louis Circuit Judge Julian Bush ordered her name not to be printed on the ballot.

File Photo

File Photo

Now the Missouri Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis, with arguments set for May 19. Johns’ lawyer, Dave Roland of the Freedom Center of Missouri, argues that the state’s two-year registration requirement violates Johns’ First Amendment rights, as well as those of the voters who might want to elect her. Johns, a St. Louis community activist, says she initially didn’t register to vote because she saw it as “an endorsement of that broken system,” and only lately has changed her mind.

The argument is similar to one Roland made two years ago on behalf of another St. Louis House candidate, Natalie Vowell, though the procedural posture is quite different. Vowell also had registered less than two years before the election, so the Secretary of State’s Office refused to place her on the ballot.

The Court of Appeals Western District ruled that the Secretary of State’s Office didn’t have that authority. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, but ultimately left the Western District’s ruling in place, so the constitutional issues weren’t addressed. Vowell later lost the election to incumbent Rep. Penny Hubbard.

Roland said he hopes the Supreme Court will now rule on those issues and restore Johns to the August ballot. He said he also filed a separate, broader constitutional challenge in Cole County Circuit Court, just in case.

“It’s a belt and suspenders approach,” Roland said. “We wanted to make sure we were preserving the issue one way or another.”

Roland argues the state’s registration requirement denies voters a potential choice on the ballot for no good reason, and that she is being penalized for the expressive act of choosing to not register to vote. The trial judge, however, didn’t buy those arguments.

“A person’s failure to register might be an expression of the person’s disdain for politics, but no more than a failure to brush one’s teeth might be an expression of one’s disdain for convention, or another person’s failure to purchase baseball tickets reflects a disdain for baseball,” Circuit Judge Julian Bush wrote.

He said Johns was arguing for the right to vote for herself — an interest the judge said is outweighed by voters’ interests in having a candidate who is actually able to serve.

“The right that Ms. Johns claims is the right to speak — to say something like ‘listen world, I’m Rachel Johns, and I would make a great state representative,’” Bush wrote, adding that she had other, better avenues to proclaim that message. “Voting for herself would seem to be a singularly ineffective method of conveying her message, given that the ballot is a secret one.”

An attorney for Peters, Matthew B. Vianello of Jacobson Press & Fields, said the issue in the case isn’t whether the state’s qualifications burden Johns, but rather whether those burdens are impermissible.

“The states have a right and in fact an obligation to create qualifications for state candidates,” he said.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office is also intervening in the case, noting that the Supreme Court’s ruling “will apply not just this year to this appellant, but to candidates for the House from all parts of Missouri, henceforth.”

The case is Peters v. Johns, SC95678.​