Requiring voters to show a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot has been a political priority of Missouri Republicans for years. But court rulings and Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto pen have stifled their efforts.
But proponents see the 2013 session, when Republicans will hold supermajorities in both the Missouri House and Senate, as an opportunity to change that.
“I think Missourians want it done,” said Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican who is sponsoring voter ID legislation. “I’m very optimistic that this is the year we can finally get it done.”
To supporters, a voter ID law is a simple way to ensure that voters are who they say they are and not impersonators trying to commit fraud. Critics, however, contend that the real goal is to disenfranchise voters who typically support Democrats.
“Voter ID puts significant burdens on particular groups of eligible voters,” said Rep. Stacey Newman, a Richmond Heights Democrat. “To put any roadblock in front of a right, and this is a constitutional right, is just offensive to me.”
In Missouri, voters currently are required to provide some form of ID before casting a ballot, but the list includes some without a photo, such as a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck.
Enacting a photo ID requirement in Missouri is a two-step process, thanks to a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling that said such a requirement was unconstitutional because it amounted to a “heavy and substantial burden on Missourians’ free exercise of the right of suffrage.”
To overcome that ruling, Republicans would have to amend the state’s constitution, which requires voter approval. Lawmakers attempted to do that in 2011, but before the question could be placed on the ballot, it was thrown out by a Cole County judge, who ruled that the summary written by the legislature was “insufficient and unfair.”
Kraus is sponsoring the constitutional amendment again, in the hopes of putting the issue before voters in 2014.
Additionally, Kraus is sponsoring legislation that would enact the requirement if voters were to approve the constitutional amendment. A nearly identical bill was vetoed by Nixon, a Democrat, in 2011.
Kraus’ bill lays out the type of ID that would allow an individual to cast a ballot, and it includes a mandate that the state cover the cost of obtaining a photo ID for those who are unable to do so.
It would exempt several groups that could have problems getting a photo ID, including anyone born before 1941. Those individuals, along with anyone else who can’t provide a photo ID on Election Day, would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that would be counted only after an election official verifies their identity by comparing their signature with a signature on file.
All voters whose identity cannot be established would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that would be counted only after the voter returns and provides proper identification.
“You have to have IDs to cash checks or get on a plane,” Kraus said. “We’re a society where IDs are almost a requirement anyway. Almost everyone has a photo ID. And if for some reason you don’t, the bill allows you to still cast a provisional ballot.”
A 2009 study by the secretary of state’s office estimated about 230,000 Missourians are registered to vote but lack a government-issued photo ID, although Republicans dispute that figure. Those most likely to be without a photo ID are the young, the elderly and minorities.
Newman points out that while the bill would provide a free ID, it would not cover the costs of any documents needed to acquire that ID, such as a birth certificate. That could create a financial barrier to the ballot box, she said.
She also argues that forcing voters to cast provisional ballots is not a legitimate alternative, since those ballots are rarely counted.
In the 2008 general election, for example, nearly 7,000 provisional ballots were cast in Missouri, but only 1,700 were counted. That’s because provisional ballots can be disqualified for a number of reasons ranging from a signature not matching one on file to a mistake in how the provisional ballot’s affidavit was filled out.
“We want to make it easier to vote in Missouri, as opposed to Republicans, who are trying to make it harder,” Newman said.
Kraus dismissed concerns that certain groups would be denied the right to vote if a photo ID law was passed.
“Everyone who is supposed to vote and registered to vote, their vote will count,” Kraus said. “We’re not going to disenfranchise anyone who is authorized to vote.”
The goal, Kraus said, is simply to prevent voter fraud.
Polls have shown majorities of Americans back ID requirements, even though most studies have shown few instances of in-person voter fraud. A recent study by News21, a national investigative reporting project, found only 10 cases of voter impersonation nationally since 2000.
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Newman said. “The only thing this would accomplish is ensure that registered voters would be denied the right to vote. That’s voter suppression.”