Bill requiring proof of citizenship at voter registration advances in Missouri

People would have to prove they are U.S. citizens when they register to vote under a proposal approved by a Missouri House committee last week.

But some of the bill’s most controversial provisions were stripped out after criticism emerged that they could make it more difficult for members of the military serving oversees to cast a ballot.

Missouri House Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller, a Willard Republican, painted the legislation as another attempt at preventing voter fraud. He sponsored legislation earlier this year that would require voters to show a government-issued photo ID, a bill that has cleared the House but has languished in the Missouri Senate.

The legislation would require anyone wishing to register to vote to provide documentation — a birth certificate, passport or other document — that would show they are a U.S. citizen. It’s nearly identical to legislation passed last year in Kansas that was written by Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Schoeller, who is running for the Republican nomination for Missouri secretary of state, was endorsed last month by Kobach, who has written some of the nation’s toughest and most controversial immigration laws.

Vanessa Crawford, executive director of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, said passing Schoeller’s proposal would be a mistake, as it has the potential to disenfranchise naturalized citizens.

Because they don’t have a U.S. birth certificate, naturalized citizens would have to present either a passport, a naturalization certificate or a certificate of citizenship, Crawford said.

“Passports cost about $135 and take four to six weeks to get,” she said. “If you’ve lost your naturalization certificate or it was somehow destroyed, it would cost $345 and take six months for a new one. For a certificate of citizenship, it’s $600 and an eight-month processing time.”

The costs could be prohibitive, or the wait for documents could keep them from being able to cast a ballot, she said.

Crawford also pointed out that lying about being a U.S. citizen in order to register to vote already carries a “severe penalty.” A person who is caught would be barred from ever becoming a citizen and could be removed from the country.

Schoeller insists the measure is focused solely on preventing immigrants in the country illegally from casting a ballot. He also pointed out that anyone currently registered to vote would not have to meet the new requirements, unless they move and have to re-register.

A similar proof-of-citizenship law passed in Arizona was thrown out earlier this month by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That decision has been appealed.

Since introducing the legislation earlier this month, Schoeller has faced harsh criticism for another provision that would have prohibited anyone voting absentee from returning the completed ballot by mail. Instead, ballots could only be returned by a surrogate who had been designated in writing when the ballot was requested. Military personnel serving in combat zones would be allowed to fax or email ballots to Missouri officials, through a U.S. Department of Defense program.

The measure also calls for photo identification to be used when requesting an absentee ballot or for a copy of a photo ID to be included with a completed ballot.

Critics — including two Republicans who are also running for their party’s nomination for secretary of state — argue that the move would make it difficult for members of the military serving overseas to cast an absentee ballot.

Rep. Jason Kander, a Kansas City Democrat, said the change would make casting a ballot “nearly impossible” for soldiers.

“I can think of several missions where there was not an abundance of Xerox or fax machines,” said Kander, a military veteran who served in Afghanistan.

Kander is the only Democrat running for secretary of state.

Schoeller said the provisions dealing with absentee voting have been mischaracterized and his intention was not to disenfranchise military voters. But since the idea had proved so controversial, and because there is so little time left in this year’s legislative session, he decided to remove it from the bill.

“I just want to move the bill forward, so I took it out in the hopes we can pass the rest of it this year,” he said.