It seemed that Missouri Republicans scored a big win when they passed a voter ID law in 2006, but the cheers were short-lived.
The Missouri Supreme Court struck down the law on grounds that requiring voters to present photo IDs to vote was at odds with the constitutional right to vote. Every year since, Republican lawmakers sought to amend the state constitution and pass voter ID, yet came up short every time.
This year, Republican leadership fast-tracked voter ID, and a pair of bills have cleared the House with an overwhelming majority and await debate in the Senate.
“It has been a priority for us in the past, but not to the level it has been a priority this year,” said Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican who has sponsored sponsored voter ID bills for several years.
But success in the Senate is not without roadblocks. Opponents of voter ID laws argue that they potentially prevent marginalized people from voting. Senate Democrats are digging in, and a filibuster is almost assured.
The first House bill would ask voters on the November ballot whether they want to amend the state constitution to allow for photo ID requirements, a move necessary because of the 2006 Supreme Court ruling.
The second bill would only kick in if voters approve the first. It would require voters to show up to the polls with a valid state-issued ID that contains a photo. These include non-expired driver’s and non-driver’s licenses and military IDs, but not something like university IDs.
Now, Missourians can vote with a proof of name and address, such as a utility bill.
Support for the bills is split down party lines. To supporters, voter ID is a common sense way to stop election fraud, Kraus said.
“When you have people trying to cheat elections,” he said, “we have to do what we can do to safeguard those elections.
Democrats have a different take. The measures would prevent those who are unable to obtain photo IDs from voting, said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat.
“It’s similar to a poll tax if you ask me,” she said. “If you believe voting is important to democracy, why would you try to exclude individuals?”
The secretary of state’s office estimates about 200,000 Missourians are registered to vote but do not have a valid driver’s license. Most are people of color, low-income earners, people with disabilities, students and the elderly, said Sarah Rossi, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.
Those segments make up a big part of the Democratic Party’s base.
Those who are unable to present an ID on Election Day might be discouraged from participating in the election altogether, Rossi said.
“You might be embarrassed if you don’t have it (a photo ID), or if you’re unable to get it,” she said.
Rossi said low-income earners may be unable to pay for an ID or have the documents required to get an ID. Others might not have the time or ability to prepare such documents.
Missourians must provide proof of their name, address, and date and place of birth to get a driver’s license. Most commonly accepted forms of documentation include government-issued birth certificates, Social Security cards and pay stubs. If a person’s name on one document does not match the name on the other, the person must get it changed.
For voters who are elderly or disabled, getting those documents and making any changes could be a grueling trek, said Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney with the Advancement Project in St. Louis.
Lieberman has been a vocal opponent of voter ID since the early 2000s and has tried multiple cases against stricter rules on voting. Lieberman’s star plaintiff in her latest trial in North Carolina is Rosanell Eaton, a 94-year-old African-American woman who has voted since before the Civil Rights Act.
After North Carolina passed a photo ID law, Eaton was told she could not vote with her voter registration card alone. Eaton and her daughter logged over 200 miles to prepare the needed documents because her name on her birth certificate did not match the one on her Social Security card, Lieberman said.
“She was ultimately able to get it all to match,” Lieberman said, “but my goodness, she spent 21 days, six hours a day at 94 years old. She was lucky enough to have a daughter who was able to drive her to three different counties and she had the ability to spend that money.”
Lieberman said some elderly voters, particularly African-Americans, might not even have a birth certificate because of historic discrimination.
“In the pre-Brown v. Board of Education era, black people were not accepted at most hospitals,” she said. “Those folks generally don’t have birth certificates or they have homemade birth certificates that are not acceptable when obtaining ID.”
Despite cases like these, Missouri Republicans maintain that the number of voters without IDs is small.
“We’re in the 21st century. Almost everyone has an ID,” Kraus said. “The fact of the matter is if you look at the 4.2 million voters we have in the state, there’s only about 200,000 that don’t have an ID.”
In debate in the House, Rep. Shamed Dogan, a St. Louis County Republican, pointed out that a voter ID requirement is “something that the majority of Missourians think is a common sense idea … that people need to prove who they are before they cast a vote.”
Supporters of voter ID argue there is already a safeguard — the option to cast a provisional ballot — that can allow people without IDs to still vote.
However, opponents argue provisional ballots are not adequate. Those casting a provisional ballot must return to election officials with the requisite ID in 72 hours. They must also go before an election official and state why he or she does not have an ID, and sign an affidavit. That signature must match the signature on the voter registration card.
If the voter does not meet these requirements, that provisional ballot is not counted.
Nearly 6,390 provisional ballots were cast in the 2012 general election, according to the secretary of state’s office. Of those ballots, only about 1,880 of them were counted.
A key point in the argument for tighter voting laws is the idea that a person could cast a vote under someone else’s identity. Opponents of voter ID have questioned the claims of “rampant voter fraud” in Missouri, but Republicans remain steadfast.
“We have had multiple cases right here in Missouri we can point to, where people are doing things that are fraudulent,” Kraus said. “We’ve had dead people signing petitions. We’ve had people (registered to vote) at an abandoned building or a residence they don’t live at.”
But Justin Levitt, a law professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says that most reported cases of “voter fraud” amount to clerical errors, such as partly matching names or a typo in a voter’s address. In some cases, a voter might die between casting a ballot and when the ballot is counted, which might lead some to assume voter fraud.
The likelihood of a voter assuming another identity at the polls is “an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightning,” according to a 2007 study by Levitt.
The partisan divide over voter ID sets the scene for a protracted battle over the bills in the Senate. Nasheed said that although Democrats lack the numbers needed to kill the bills, they are prepared to filibuster and drag out the debate.
“I hope you enjoy listening to me talk #VoterID #Filibuster,” Nasheed said on Twitter in early February.
But Republicans could swiftly crush the filibuster by shutting down the debate itself and forcing a vote through a rarely used parliamentary procedure referred to as “move to previous question,” or “PQ” for short.
The procedure successfully defeated the Democrats’ filibuster on a “right-to-work” bill last May. But there was a cost. Democrats essentially shut down the Senate for the rest of the legislative session, during which no bills were passed due to fierce retaliatory filibusters.
Republican leaders appear reluctant to pull the trigger on this maneuver again, but it remains as a last-resort option. And Nasheed said Democrats would try to defeat voter ID in the event of a PQ.
“If they PQ us and shove it down our throats, I want the Democrats to champion their calls to turn out the vote — to let people know that this is them (Republicans) trying to take your vote away,” Nasheed said.
But Kraus said he’s confident the bills will pass the Senate and get the green light from voters.
“I think it’s the right thing to do to let the voters decide whether the Constitution should be changed and allow the General Assembly to allow photo ID,” he said. “People in Missouri overwhelmingly support photo ID. I’d be shocked if it got less than 70 percent (of the votes in the ballot.)”
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