JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s failure to comply with federal voting laws will cost taxpayers more than $1 million in legal fees.
In an opinion issued Monday, the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a decision made more than a year ago by U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes to award the cost of attorneys representing the St. Louis and Kansas City chapters of the League of Women Voters and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
In all, the 16 lawyers involved in the case will receive $1.1 million and $27,484 in expenses related to the case.
The payout comes in response to a 2018 lawsuit alleging the state was violating the federal National Voter Registration Act.
The suit accused the state of failing to automatically update voter information after residents change addresses.
The National Voter Registration Act, or NVRA, requires states to offer residents the opportunity to register to vote whenever someone applies for a new or renewed driver’s license or state ID. It also requires the state to update the individual’s voter registration record whenever a voter updates their address information with the state motor vehicle agency.
The lawsuit said that the failure to enter changes of address into the voter registration database means that 200,000 people annually will not get their vote counted at all because they moved from one county to another. Another 380,000 will have to cast provisional ballots because they moved within a county to a new address, the complaint said.
Anthony Rothert, legal director of the Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, is among the attorneys who worked on the case. He said he is pleased with the court’s decision, but said the state could have avoided the legal fight if it had gotten into compliance as requested.
“What’s frustrating is the lawsuit was never necessary,” Rothert said. “It’s unfortunate for the taxpayers.”
As part of the settlement, the Missouri Department of Revenue agreed to redirect residents to the secretary of state’s voter registration website when they change their address through the Department of Revenue.
The Department of Revenue also agreed to changes to in-person and by-mail change-of-address transactions, which the League of Women Voters said will improve voter registration services.
At the time, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who oversees the state’s elections, said he was pleased the Department of Revenue, which operates independently of Ashcroft’s office, would begin complying with the law.
But, a spokesman said Ashcroft was disappointed that it took a lawsuit to resolve the matter. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the Department of Revenue was under the control of former Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican.
In settling the case, the League of Women Voters of Missouri said the settlement would reduce voter disenfranchisement by ensuring voters are registered at their current address.
Revenue officials also agreed to conduct audits, publish data and designate a National Voter Registration Act coordinator to ensure compliance with the settlement.
Attorneys for the state argued that the legal fees sought by the attorneys should be denied in their entirety, or reduced to $286,862.
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