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As Missouri photo ID voting law goes into effect, opponents equate it to 'Jim Crow'

As Missouri photo ID voting law goes into effect, opponents equate it to 'Jim Crow'

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St. Louis voters will be among the first to go to the polls under a new statewide photo-identification voting law, during a special election for an aldermanic seat in July.

But Missouri’s top election official is acknowledging the state doesn't have time to reach all voters who may want free IDs before that election.

“We won’t get free IDs to everyone who wants them before the St. Louis city special election,” Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a top Republican proponent of the controversial new law, said in an interview Wednesday.

On Thursday, he clarified that comment: "We don't know who those people are. I don't think we've had 15 people call up who need IDs." Anyone wants a free photo ID should contact his office, Ashcroft said.

Still, he batted back what he alleged is a campaign by the law’s opponents to discredit it, and he insisted that backup provisions in the law would allow every eligible voter to vote even if they don’t have IDs. “People are misleading the voters of the state about what this law said,” Ashcroft said, “and I think that’s despicable.”

There are similarly heated emotions on the other side of the issue. Activists and elected officials decried the new law Wednesday, the day before it officially goes into effect, alleging it was designed to make it more difficult for Democratic-leaning constituencies to vote.

“When my ancestors, who were slaves in this country, first won the right to vote, the reaction was to pass Jim Crow laws to keep us from voting — things like literacy tests and poll taxes,” said St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones. “Voter ID is another poll tax.”

Jones and about two dozen others who gathered on the steps of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis also alleged that lack of state funding and information regarding the law made it more likely that people without drivers licenses won’t know how to meet the new requirements to vote. They called on Ashcroft to provide more information to the estimated 220,000 Missourians who currently lack a state-issued photo identification.

“Invariably, this law will cut people out,” warned St. Louis attorney Denise Lieberman of Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington.

The new law is a state constitutional amendment that was promoted by Republicans and approved by 63 percent of Missouri voters last November. It generally requires photo IDs for voting, though there are provisions to allow voting with just a utility bill or paycheck and a sworn statement of identity.

Voters who come to the polls without any qualifying ID document can still cast a provisional ballot under the measure. Provisional ballots will be counted if the voter returns to the polling place during polling hours with a form of identification, or if election officials can verify identity by comparing the voter’s signature to the one on file with the election authority. It’s the same process used to verify signatures for initiative petitions.

Ashcroft said those safeguards would prevent the kind of voter disenfranchisement that opponents were predicting.

“There are some people who don’t want the law to work,” he said. “I understand there are people that disagree with the concept of requiring ID to vote. But it’s the law.”

In Missouri, the measure has spawned the same debate going on nationally between Republicans, who generally support photo ID requirements, and Democrats, who generally oppose them.

Supporters say such laws are a common-sense safeguard against voter fraud, to ensure that people who vote are who they say they are. Opponents note that documented cases of voter-impersonation fraud are virtually nonexistent, and they allege the real goal of the laws is to suppress the vote among the poor, disabled, minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic and who might lack drivers licenses and other government documentation.

The debate is further complicated in Missouri by a provision in the new law that requires state funding for its implementation — including providing IDs and other documentation free of charge to any voters who need them — and a public information campaign to ensure people understand what’s required. Critics contend that Missouri’s Republican-controlled state government has shrugged off both requirements.

Former Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat, had said the state needed to spend $5.2 million over two years to properly inform voters about the new law, including sending letters to all registered voters. Kander’s Republican successor, Ashcroft, scaled back those plans. The new state budget provides him about $1.5 million for implementation.

Ashcroft says that’s more than enough for an effective outreach campaign, with budget writers pledging to spend more down the line if necessary. So far, he said, he’s enlisted state legislators to help spread the word in their districts, met with local election officials throughout the state and put out literature to explain the new process.

Still, concerns persist, particularly with looming special elections — one on July 11 to fill St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s open former seat on the Board of Aldermen, and others in August for vacant Missouri House and Senate seats.

The state budget bills aren’t set to go into effect until July 1, further complicating matters. Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, has yet to sign budget bills that have reached his desk. That makes for a tight time frame for the state to provide photo identification to St. Louis voters who want one.

Republican legislators have said the new language allowing people to sign a statement was a concession to Democrats, though it has done little to quell their fears of voter suppression.

“This mass policy change does not have the resources to be implemented in the first place,” state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, told the gathering here Wednesday. She noted that turnout in the 2016 presidential race in Texas was down in Democratic areas, after that state’s voter ID law went into effect, and she warned: “That’s what will happen here in the state of Missouri if we don’t hold their feet to the fire.”

Ashcroft insisted the new law will work. And if it doesn’t, he said, “I’m going to be held responsible.”

Editor's note: This story includes additional information from Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who said Thursday that anyone who wants a photo ID should contact his office and apply for one.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter.

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