- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A Missouri voter-registration requirement that a trial court said bars a formerly out-of-state activist from running for office is unconstitutional, her attorney argued Thursday to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Rachel Johns was an activist from Tennessee but moved to the St. Louis area after the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the resulting protests. She wants to face off against incumbent Rep. Joshua Peters during the Aug. 2 Democratic primary. But a trial court in April declared her ineligible to run for the St. Louis-area seat.

The state requires candidates for legislative seats to be registered voters in Missouri at least two years before the election.

Johns said she lost faith in the political system and chose not to register to vote in protest. She said a local official convinced her otherwise and she registered to vote in February 2015, but she had missed the deadline to run against Peters.

Johns’ attorney, Dave Roland of the Freedom Center of Missouri, argued that the decision to block Johns from running based on her late registration violates her rights to free speech, which Peters’ attorney Matthew Vianello disputed. He said there’s “an initial threshold requirement that I think is important to show that a candidate has actually participated and is serious and wants to be a state representative in the state of Missouri.”

No Republicans are running for the House seat, so the Democratic nominee likely will win the office. Peters denied he took the issue to court to avoid a primary. “You must play by the rules and you must obey the law,” Peters told reporters later Thursday.

Justice Laura Denvir Stith questioned whether the two-year limit is arbitrary and why it’s imposed only on some candidates, because statewide office-seekers don’t need to meet it. Vianello said those running for the Legislature face less scrutiny than gubernatorial hopefuls and other statewide candidates, so a voter-registration requirement allows for more vetting.

Vianello and lawyers for the state attorney general’s office also said the constitutional requirement has been in place for decades, isn’t a burden and is aimed at ensuring candidates have been politically involved.

Roland said after the arguments that voter registration is a meaningless requirement for candidates.

“You don’t have to demonstrate any particular knowledge or skills or character or experience,” Roland said. “All you have to do is check a box.”

Judges didn’t indicate when they might rule.

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