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Lawsuit seeks to block Missouri photo ID ballot measure

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Missouri state capitol

The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City on Oct. 20, 2000. Photo by J.B. Forbes / Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY • A ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to allow a photo ID requirement to vote contains deceptive language and should not appear on the ballot, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by a coalition of groups.

The measure, which was approved by the Republican-led legislature in May, is slated to appear on the ballot in November 2012. It would allow lawmakers to establish a law requiring anyone wishing to cast a ballot to provide a government-issued photo ID. It would also allow the establishment of a nine day early-voting period for general elections. The Missouri constitution would have to be amended to put a photo ID law into effect because the state Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that a similar law was unconstitutional.

Voting-rights groups The Advancement Project and Fair Elections Legal Network, along with the ACLU of Eastern and Western Missouri, filed the lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court with eight Missouri voters as plaintiffs. The groups ask the court to block the initiative – entitled “The Voter Protection Act” -- from appearing on the ballot because it “deceives and misleads" voters about what the amendment would do.

The ballot language is as follows: "Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to adopt the Voter Protection Act and allow the General Assembly to provide by general law for advance voting prior to election day, voter photo identification requirements, and voter requirements based on whether one appears to vote in person or by absentee ballot?"

Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney with The Advancement Project, said a photo ID requirement to vote simply disenfranchises voters. Additionally, the language of the amendment that was passed by lawmakers never mentions the phrase, "Voter Protection Act."

"Voters will walk into the voting booth, see ‘Voter Protection Act’ and have no idea they are voting to erode a fundamental right,” she said.

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.

Supporters of the photo-ID requirement argue that it is needed in order to prevent voter fraud. Critics counter that the only type of voter fraud a photo ID requirement aims to end - lying about your identity at the polling place - is not an issue, since there have been no documented cases of this type of fraud in modern Missouri history.

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, although Republicans dispute that figure. A 2007 study by Washington University found that among blacks, the young and low-income residents -- historically among the most loyal Democratic voters -- about 80 percent of registered voters had access to a government-issued photo ID. This compares to around 90 percent of whites, middle class and middle-aged voters.

The sponsor of the voter ID bill, Republican state Sen. Bill Stouffer of Napton, said the language in the ballot intiative is clear, concise and represents the amendment voters will consider.

"Unfortunately, some special interests will do whatever they can to allow fraudulent voting in our state," he said. "We believe Missouri voters will join us in making sure every honest vote counts by requiring photo ID at the polls."

Last month, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a companion bill that laid out the guidelines for implementing photo ID law, should voters approve it. He said photo ID requirements to vote disproportionately impact senior citizens and persons with disabilities, among others, “who are qualified to vote and have been lawfully voting since becoming eligible to do so, but are less likely to have a driver’s license or government-issued photo ID.”

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