Voter Fraud and the Missouri Senate Race

Earlier this month, the law on voting where you reside appears to have caught an unlikely person in an election law violation — Missouri’s Attorney General — and presumptive Republican Senate candidate — Josh Hawley.  To understand what happened, a little local background is in order.

The main campus of the University of Missouri is in Columbia — thirty miles away from the state capitol in Jefferson City.  Before becoming Attorney General, Hawley was a law professor at the University of Missouri.  Aside from his full time job, like some law professors, Hawley offered his assistance on cases that he thought deserved his assistance.  One of those cases involved aiding the religious owners of Hobby Lobby in their effort to deny birth control coverage to their female employees.  This case gave Hawley connections to ultra-conservative donors in Washington, and also was a selling point as he went around Missouri speaking to local Republicans in rural counties.   These two advantages allowed him to pull an upset last year in the Republican primary over the “establishment” conservative candidate in the Republican primary, and the Trump landslide helped him win the general election.

After the election is where the fun begins.  First, among the changes that flowed from the 2016 election, the new Republican governor appointed the state representative who represented part of Columbia and the surrounding area to an administration positions.  Before becoming Attorney General,  Hawley and his family lived in this district.   The Governor set the special election to fill this seat for this August (one of the available election dates under state law).

Second, Missouri law has a special provision requiring the Attorney General to actually reside in Jefferson City.  This law dates to the old days before modern communication.  At the time that the law was written, it made sense.  The Attorney General is officially the attorney for every state agency.  When the staff was the Attorney General with a handful of assistants,  the state’s lawyer needed to be close enough to his clients to be reached on short notice.  While, today, both modern communications and the large staff make the location of the Attorney General’s bed less significant, the law is still in the books.  After some bad publicity about the fact that he was still living in Columbia, Hawley rented an apartment in Jefferson City to serve as his “legal” residence even though his family still lived in Columbia.

On election day, these two situations collided.  Even though he was now “legally” residing in Jefferson City,  Hawley had never changed his voting address from his Columbia home to his Jefferson City apartment.  So he voted in the special election, creating two possibilities.  First, he has not actually changed his residence to Jefferson City.  If that is the case, he has been misrepresenting his residence and violating his legal obligations as Attorney General.  The exact legal consequences for such violations is unclear but could include forfeiture of office.  Second, he did change his legal residence to Jefferson City.  If that is the case, his vote earlier this month was a violation of state election law.  If he violated state election law, the legal consequences would be severe.  If charged and convicted for voting where he did not reside, Hawley would lose his law license, be removed from office, and would be ineligible to run for office (along with permanently losing his right to vote).

Ultimately, this issue will probably not go far.  As election fraud goes, this fraud is highly technical.   But it does reflect the hypocrisy of the Republican Party — using claims of rampant vote fraud to get Democrats elected as a cover for voter suppression when the reality is that the isolated instances of actual vote fraud is as likely to benefit Republicans as Democrats with the proposed measures doing little to prevent such fraud.

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