Missouri's voter ID bill inspires pushback over 'voter suppression'

Republican lawmakers are taking another swing at insisting Missouri voters show a government-issued photo ID at the polls.

And they’re meeting fierce resistance.

Leaders of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus said Tuesday the Republican push aims to “disenfranchise and suppress” certain voters — the disabled, the young and minorities.

“This is nothing more than a modern-day poll tax,” said Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Kansas City Democrat, referring to the tax implemented in some states in the late 19th century to shut out black voters. “Voting is a right. It’s not a privilege. They’re trying to turn it into a privilege.”

Republicans reject the accusations, instead arguing a need to combat voter fraud.

“This is about protecting the sanctity of our vote,” said Rep. Stanley Cox, a Sedalia Republican who is sponsoring the measure. “It is certainly one of the highest principles that exist in a representative government.”

For seven years running, the party has tried to push through the new standards. 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.

Now, emboldened by new veto-proof supermajorities, Missouri Republicans tout dueling voter ID proposals making their way through both the House and Senate.

Adding fuel to an already contentious debate are two public hearings that Democrats allege were designed to limit testimony from opponents.

Last week, the House Elections Committee scheduled a hearing on a voter ID bill for 6:45 a.m., or 15 minutes before the Capitol is open to the public. After numerous complaints, the start time was pushed back to 8 a.m., when hearings traditionally begin.

On Tuesday, the committee scheduled a hearing on another voter ID bill in the side gallery of the House. That area is rarely used for hearings, especially those likely to generate a substantial amount of public interest, because it lacks seating and isn’t set up for witness testimony.

“In their zeal to enact voter suppression laws, House Republicans have engaged in a pattern of witness suppression,” said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat.

Elections Committee Chairwoman Sue Entlicher, a Bolivar Republican, saw “no underhandedness with this at all.” There simply weren’t any other rooms available at the time of the hearing, she said.

In Missouri, voters currently must provide some form of ID before casting a ballot. But that’s not limited to items with photos. A utility bill, bank statement or paycheck can suffice.

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 last year found only 10 alleged cases of in-person voter impersonation in any election in the United States since 2000.

A 2009 study by the secretary of state’s office estimated that about 230,000 Missourians are registered to vote but lack a government-issued photo ID.

“There is no need for this law,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat and the chairwoman of the Black Caucus. “There has been no fraud. It doesn’t exist.”

Cox conceded Tuesday that he was unaware of instances of voter impersonation in Missouri.

“But that,” he said, “doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

Republicans have typically countered such accusations with one of their own: That Democrats are overhyping the possible impact on voters.

A recent report by Reuters seems to buttress the Republican argument, finding that in states that have had similar laws on the books for a few years — Indiana and Georgia — turnout and registration actually increased after the laws took effect.

That report, however, does not take into account certain variables. For instance, 2008 was historic, a presidential election that drove up voter turnout around the country.

“We don’t know any more than we did before,” Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in elections, recently told the news site ProPublica. “Any change in requirements relating to voter registration and access typically has a change by one or two percentage points. When you’re talking about that size, it’s very hard to tease out the data.”

Missouri Republicans pushed through a photo ID bill in 2006 that was later struck down by the state Supreme Court. It ruled that the law amounted to a “heavy and substantial burden on Missourians’ free exercise of the right of suffrage.”

To move forward, Republicans have to put a change to the state’s constitution on the ballot. If passed by the legislature, the measure would appear on statewide ballots in 2014. An implementation bill, laying out what type of ID could be used to cast a ballot, would have to pass separately and go to the governor.

Both cleared a House committee Tuesday on a party-line vote.

The state would cover the cost of obtaining a photo ID for those who are unable to do so. But the state would not pay the cost of gathering underlying documents, such as a birth certificate, needed to get an ID.

And while it would allow those unable or unwilling to get a government-issued photo ID to vote, they would have to cast a provisional ballot. According to the secretary of state’s office, only 25 percent of provisional ballots cast in 2012 were ever counted, since they can be disqualified for a number of reasons ranging from a signature not matching one on file or a mistake in how the provisional ballot’s affidavit was filled out.

Driver’s licenses, state-issued non-driver’s licenses and military IDs would qualify under the proposed legislation. Some other forms — such as a university ID — would not.