Missouri Republicans have been trying to enact a voter ID law for more than a decade.
On Tuesday, they overcame a major hurdle, striking a deal with Senate Democrats that ended a filibuster and paved the way for voters to decide whether to amend Missouri’s constitution to allow the state to require a photo ID before casting a ballot.
The Missouri Senate voted 24-8 to approve voter ID legislation. A second voter ID bill amending the state’s constitution is expected to be approved later this week.
“For 10 years, we’ve gotten nothing,” said Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican who has sponsored the voter ID bills for several years. “This is an historic step forward.”
The voter ID issue has threatened to derail the legislative session for months. Democrats had vowed to block the measure, which they argued could disenfranchise thousands of Missouri voters.
Until this week, they had made good on that promise.
But adjournment looms next Friday, and Republican Senate leadership had already demonstrated that they are willing to use parliamentary maneuvers to quash a filibuster and force a vote without any concessions to Democrats.
So after years of gridlock on the issue, the two sides struck a compromise.
Under current law, voters are required to sign in when they seek to cast a ballot and attest that they are who they say they are. They must also provide some form of ID, but the list of acceptable IDs includes some without a photo, such as a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck.
The legislation passed Tuesday would still allow people to cast ballots using a non-photo ID. Those voters would be required to sign a statement attesting to their identity under penalty of perjury. The statement would also inform the voters that they are required to get a government-issued photo ID and that the state will cover the cost of obtaining that ID, as well as the cost of gathering underlying documents needed to get it, such as a birth certificate.
Additionally, a local election authority would be permitted to take a photo of any voter who doesn’t present a photo ID, which would become part of that individual’s voter registration file.
“This is nowhere near where I would want it,” said Kraus, who is also running for Missouri secretary of state. “But I think a good piece of legislation is one that both sides walk away and say, ‘I’m not happy with exactly the way it looks, but it’s something I can live with.’ ”
Some have questioned whether the compromised language waters down the impact of the voter ID bill. But state Rep. Justin Alferman, a Gasconade County Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, said the new standards are a step forward and will provide information on how many Missourians are actually voting who don’t possess a government-issued photo ID.
The secretary of state’s office estimates about 200,000 Missourians are registered to vote but do not have a valid driver’s license, a figure Republicans have long dismissed.
“This is a major win,” Alferman said. “I’m ecstatic that we are finally getting this done.”
In 2006, Republicans pushed through a photo ID bill that was later struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court. The court ruled that the law amounted to a “heavy and substantial burden on Missourians’ free exercise of the right of suffrage.”
Republicans have pushed for voter ID every year since that Supreme Court ruling, and each time the effort has been derailed by either a court ruling or Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto. Kansas adopted a voter photo ID law in 2011.
Because of the 2006 court ruling, Republicans have had to take a two-pronged approach to voter ID.
With voter ID deemed unconstitutional, the first step is asking voters to change the constitution.
A second bill actually implements the photo ID requirements if the constitutional amendment is approved by voters.
State Rep. Stacey Newman, a St. Louis County Democrat, said her concern is that if voters approve the voter ID constitutional amendment, the compromise struck in the Senate will be moot. Republicans will simply come back next year and pass a much stricter ID requirement.
“This may seem good now,” Newman said, “but I’m concerned about what happens in the future.”
State Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat, shares that concern but said that with only eight Democrats in the 34-member Senate, the compromise was the best outcome this year.
“No one is happy we had to come to this point,” Curls said. “But our goal was to minimize the impact on those Missourians who don’t possess a current government-issued ID.”
GOP lawmakers have long argued that voter ID laws are needed to help prevent potential voter fraud.
“Elections are essential to our democratic process, and Missourians deserve a vote on allowing further safeguards,” Kraus said.
Democrats point out that under the current system, there has never been a reported case in Missouri of the type of fraud prevented by photo ID laws. A national study of the issue found only 10 alleged cases of in-person voter impersonation in the United States since 2000.
Critics also paint the issue as blatantly partisan, saying those who are less likely to have a government-issued photo ID are minority voters, college students and people living in poverty — groups statistically more likely to support Democrats.
Both bills must be approved one last time by the Missouri House, which overwhelmingly passed them earlier this year. The constitutional amendment would then go to the statewide ballot later this year, and the implementing legislation would go to the governor.
If everything is approved, the voter ID law would go into effect in June 2017.
Nixon could veto the bill, Kraus said, but the compromise has addressed the concerns Democrats have expressed over the years about the impact of voter ID. Additionally, the bill cleared both chambers with veto-proof majorities.
“It would be really hard,” Kraus said, “to say this bill disenfranchises anyone.”
A voter ID law placed on the ballot in Minnesota was soundly rejected by voters in 2012. Polls had shown the proposal to be overwhelmingly popular in that state in the lead-up to the vote, but it ultimately garnered only 46 percent of the vote on Election Day.
“I think voters are catching on to what these laws are all about,” Newman said. “And I believe if this makes it on the ballot, voters will reject a law that disenfranchises Missourians.”