JEFFERSON CITY • Five years after the Missouri Supreme Court struck down a law requiring anyone wishing to cast a ballot to provide a government-issued photo ID, the Missouri Legislature has put the matter before the voters.
The Missouri Senate voted 25-9 Monday in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would require all Missourians to provide a photo ID in order to vote. It also contains provisions that would establish a nine-day early voting period for general elections. The House passed the same measure last week, meaning the amendment will be on the ballot in November 2012.
In 2006, Republicans pushed through a photo ID bill that was later struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court. The court ruled that the law amounted to a "heavy and substantial burden on Missourians' free exercise of the right of suffrage."
Critics argue that the proposed amendment would disenfranchise voters who are poor, elderly and disabled, constituencies that sometimes have trouble obtaining a photo ID.
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The bill's sponsor, Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, said he worked hard to avoid disenfranchising any voters, including a mandate that the state cover the cost of obtaining a photo ID for those who are unable to do so.
In addition, the legislation exempts several groups that could have problems getting a photo ID, including anyone born before 1941 or someone with a sincerely held religious belief against obtaining these forms of identification. Those individuals would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that would be counted only after an election official verifies their identity by comparing their signature with a signature on file.
"This is not about putting up barriers for people who want to vote," Stouffer said. "We're just trying to make sure our elections are secure and fair. Missouri always has very narrowly decided elections, where one vote can change the outcome."
The federal Help America Vote Act mandates that all states require identification from first-time voters who registered to vote by mail and did not provide verification of their identification with their mail-in voter registration. Twenty-eight states have broader voter identification requirements that go beyond HAVA, with only nine requiring voters to show a photo ID.
In Missouri, voters are already required to provide some form of ID before casting a ballot, but the list includes some without a photo, such as a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck.
A 2009 study by the secretary of state's office estimated around 230,000 Missourians are registered to vote but lack a government-issued photo ID. Many of those would have no problem getting a photo ID, but many others could have financial or other barriers that keep them from doing so, said Laura Egerdal, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who opposes a photo ID requirement to vote. While the proposed amendment would mean the state would pay for photo IDs for these voters, the underlying documents required could be expensive or even impossible to obtain, she said.
And making those without a photo ID cast a provisional ballot would do little to ensure their voice is heard in an election, Egerdal said, because historically, "the majority of provisional ballots cast by Missouri voters do not count."
Using a signature to verify a person's identity in order for a provisional to count is unreliable, especially in cases of elderly voters who registered many years earlier and whose signature likely looks very different, said Denise Lieberman, a spokeswoman for Missourians for Fair Elections. This concern would also be true for voters with disabilities, she said.
"The people most impacted by those exceptions will likely cast a ballot that won't count, and these are registered voters," Lieberman said.
Stouffer said he has doubts about the secretary of state's figures and that he'd be "really shocked" if more than 200,000 Missourians were registered to vote but didn't have a photo ID.
"You can't function in this society without a photo ID," he said. "You need one to rent a movie, get on a plane, cash a check, any number of things."
Voter fraud is the only concern in regards to this bill, Stouffer said, and preventing it and maintaining the integrity of Missouri's elections is the goal of the constitutional amendment.
"This is about making it easier to vote and harder to cheat," he said.
Saying the amendment is designed to prevent voter fraud is not accurate, Egerdal said, because the only type of voter fraud it aims to end - lying about your identity at the polling place - is not an issue in Missouri. There are no documented cases of this type of voter fraud in modern Missouri history under either Republican or Democratic secretaries of state, Egerdal said.
The Senate passed the proposed amendment in February. By the time it cleared the House last week, lawmakers added language dealing with early voting. Thirty-five states allow voters to cast their ballots before Election Day, either by mail or in person. Missouri law, however, requires people who want to vote early to state that they will be unable to go to the polls on Election Day due to absence from the area or another eligible reason.
If approved by voters, a nine-day early voting period will be created. A companion piece of legislation that has yet to pass would establish early voting locations around the state - one site for every 100,000 residents with at least one in each county.
Absentee voting rules would remain unchanged.
It was the early-voting provisions that garnered the praise of Democrats in the Senate, including Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence.
"Nine days of early voting is certainly an improvement on the status quo," he said.
While he still has concerns about the photo ID requirement, Callahan said many of the major problems with the law that was tossed out by the Supreme Court in 2006 have been worked out in the new legislation.
"I'm not wild about the ID requirement, but I think we've worked through a lot of those problems," he said.
But while the early voting provisions were a hit with Democrats, they became a cause of concern for several Republicans. When debate began on an accompanying piece of legislation designed to implement the constitutional amendment if it is passed by voters, Sen. Chuck Purgason, R- Caulfield, spoke out in opposition.
Stouffer, who was also the sponsor of the legislation implementing the early voting and voter ID amendment, withdrew the bill and promised to continue working on it. The Legislature must adjourn for the year on Friday.
"There is still time to figure out a compromise with my Republican colleagues this week," he said. "And if we don't get it done this session, we can bring it up again next year."
County election officials have opposed early voting provisions in the past out of concern about the added expense and workload. But they are neutral on this year's bill.
"We've worked on several key issues that have been resolved," said Mark Rhoads, who lobbies for the county clerks.
Lieberman said her organization, which is a coalition of various groups including AARP, the NAACP and League of Women Voters, plans to launch an education campaign designed to persuade voters to reject the amendment next year.