Missouri Republicans have been trying for a decade to enact a strict Voter-ID law, and 2016 could finally be their year.
On Thursday, the GOP-controlled legislature passed a new voter-ID bill and a companion ballot initiative changing the state Constitution that must be approved by Voters, most likely in November. (Governor Jay Nixon can still veto the bill, but the legislature has a super-majority to override him.)
“It has been a priority for us in the past, but not to the level it has been a priority this year,” said the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Will Kraus.
Voter ID has long been an obsession for Missouri Republicans. They have been blocked on three different occasions from enacting such a law, which is why they are now asking voters to weaken protections for Voting Rights in the state Constitution to allow it. Writes David Graham of The Atlantic:
A 2006 attempt was passed and signed into law, but the state supreme court struck it down as an unconstitutional infringement on the right to vote, in part because it forced citizens to assume the cost of obtaining ID.
In 2011, Governor Nixon vetoed another attempt. There were not enough votes to override him. The following year, state Republicans tried again, this time using a constitutional amendment to sidestep the supreme court ruling. But a judge ruled that attempt unconstitutional, too, and it was excluded from the ballot.
Missouri Democrats filibustered against the current bill, noting that 5 percent of the electorate—220,000 registered voters—lack a government-issued photo ID, according to the secretary of state’s office, and it would cost the state nearly $17 million to implement in the first three years. (State Senator Kiki Curls read from my book Give Us the Ballot during the filibuster, pointing out how people like Congressman John Lewis nearly died fighting for voting rights.)
As a result, the legislature passed a compromise, allowing voters without a photo ID to sign a statement under penalty of perjury confirming their identify and provide a non-photo ID, like a utility bill or bank statement, which is already required under current law.
However, a similar compromise in North Carolina failed to prevent widespread problems at the polls during this year’s primary, with poll workers wrongly telling voters they needed photo ID and administering “spelling tests” to minority voters that seemed like the literacy tests of yesteryear. More than 1,300 ballots were rejected because voters did not provide the proper ID.
“The experience in North Carolina tells us the information doesn’t trickle down to voters, who will only hear ‘photo ID is required’ and that will be a deterrent to voting,” says Denise Lieberman, a lawyer with the Advancement Project who lives in St. Louis.
Lieberman’s 85-year-old mother, Joy, is one of the people who could be impacted by the voter-ID law. Though she’s voted since 1952 and was an elected official for 25 years, the first name she uses on all government documents, including her voter registration card, is actually her middle name, which is not included on her original birth certificate from 1931. When her driver’s license expires, Joy’s birth certificate may not be accepted as proper documentation for obtaining a voter ID.
The weakening of voting rights protections in Missouri’s constitution—which, unlike the US Constitution, explicitly protects the right to vote—could also lead to future voting restrictions, like proof of citizenship for voter registration or a tougher voter-ID law, and will make it more difficult to challenge such laws in state court. (A federal challenge under the Voting Rights Act is still possible.)
The Missouri GOP’s obsession with voter fraud dates back to the 2000 election, when a botched voter purge in St. Louis led to chaos on Election Day and polls were briefly kept open late to give people more time to vote, which Missouri Republicans wrongly blamed for US Senator John Ashcroft’s close loss. “Democrats in the city of St. Louis are trying to steal this election,” Missouri GOP Senator Kit Bond alleged. After Ashcroft became George W. Bush’s attorney general, a new right-wing voter-fraud crusade was born. Ashcroft’s son, Jay, a Republican candidate for secretary of state, is now a leading proponent of the voter-ID ballot initiative.
Despite repeatedly crying wolf, Missouri Republicans haven’t offered any evidence of voter impersonation to justify the voter-ID law. “There has not been a single case of voter impersonation fraud reported to the Secretary of State’s office,” reports Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat who is now running for the US Senate.
The ten-year voter-ID push has more to do with the intersection of race and political power.