JEFFERSON CITY • After more than a decade of trying, Republicans resurrected last year a measure to require photo IDs for Missouri voters.
The Missouri Supreme Court had struck down the first attempt in 2006, finding the law abridged a fundamental right to vote for thousands without government-issued photo IDs.
But before putting a new measure on the ballot last year, GOP supermajorities made some changes.
Not only will non-driver license ID cards be free, the documents necessary to apply for them — such as birth certificates or marriage licenses — will be, too.
And anyone who can’t get either can still vote with a utility bill, a paycheck or other form of ID accepted previously by signing a statement swearing they are who they say they are.
Backers said the measure took extraordinary steps to help people vote, ensuring that it would avoid court challenges that have hassled states including Texas and North Carolina in recent years.
“No registered voter will be disenfranchised by this law,” Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, tells audiences, including one in St. Louis earlier this month.
Once the Legislature put the measure on the November ballot, 63 percent of Missouri voters approved adding voter photo ID to the state constitution. The new rules take effect in August.
Now the state government will have to live up to its promises.
Standing in the way is a budget fight pitting Republican legislators against the new GOP governor, myriad legal obstacles and a nagging sense that the law will do little to deter real fraud.
Under the new constitutional amendment, the state must pay for three elements of a photo ID program: free IDs for anyone who can’t pay for one; free documents necessary to get those IDs; and advertising to make sure everyone knows about the changes.
That last part is crucial. If people don’t know IDs and documents are free, or that they can sign a statement and vote anyway, the law’s provisions may serve to discourage voting.
Former Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat and an opponent of photo ID requirements for voters, said the state needed to spend $5.2 million over the next two years to properly inform voters and carry out the law. He wanted TV and radio ads, two newspaper ads before elections and roughly $2 million to pay for letters to every registered voter in the state about the changes.
He estimated that 224,000 registered voters lacked photo IDs as of 2014.
Republicans decried Kander’s numbers as an attempt to make the law look bad. Ashcroft, who took office in January, has ditched Kander’s plans for the most expensive TV and direct mail efforts.
Ashcroft figures he can educate the public and pay for documents from out of state for just $1.4 million next year.
But even that is well above what Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, has in mind. In a budget proposal released Feb. 2 and designed to address an estimated $456 million shortfall, he gave voter photo ID $300,000: $100,000 each for public education, the IDs and records.
That surprised Barry Burden, who directs the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“The estimates in other states are usually in the millions, not the hundred thousands,” he said. “I think a seven-figure estimate would be closer to reality.”
House Republicans, such as Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick of Shell Knob, who chairs the House budget committee, and Rep. Justin Alferman of Hermann, who sponsored the measure, urged calm and vowed to find more money.
But Greitens, who supported voter ID on the campaign trail, hasn’t budged.
“We believe that we have allocated the right amount to implement the Voter ID program and ensure that our elections are fair and accessible to all,” Greitens’ spokesman Parker Briden said in an email Feb. 22.
The House announced a budget approving Ashcroft’s request last week, but Greitens can veto any part of it, and his office hasn’t said anything to reporters, Ashcroft or the Legislature indicating that he’s shifted.
Denise Lieberman, a lawyer from St. Louis with the Advancement Project who has worked to dismantle voter ID laws in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, says even Ashcroft’s figure is millions short.
“You wouldn’t run for dogcatcher without two or three mailers, and yet we’re making a change to a fundamental right without them,” she said.
And no one knows how much the free IDs and documents will cost the Department of Revenue and Department of Health and Senior Services. Both departments are waiting to see how much demand they get before they ask for money, but a fiscal analysis said their combined costs could exceed $7 million next year.
Ashcroft downplays those numbers. He thinks that a few hundred people, not hundreds of thousands, will need the state’s aid to get photo IDs, bringing down the costs significantly. And he’s confident that traveling the state holding news conferences, going door-to-door in communities most affected and making pamphlets and posters available at polls as soon as April will be enough voter outreach.
See you in court
Money is only half of the battle, though. Election experts say even a fully funded law could easily get tied up in court.
Ashcroft and Alferman have practically invited scrutiny, calling the law a model for other states that wouldn’t disenfranchise a single voter. In several interviews, they’ve asked anyone at genuine risk to let them know personally.
But unless they plan to take a few shifts at license offices, which would distribute the free IDs, a good portion of the process will be out of their control.
“DMV access has been a significant issue in several states,” said Burden, the elections researcher. “And that’s because either workers haven’t been adequately trained or people can’t get to the offices in the first place.”
The first problem gave Wisconsin legal fits last year.
The state’s law said anyone in need of an ID to vote could get one for free, just like Missouri’s law.
But the voting rights group VoteRiders recorded conversations with workers at seven license offices who gave incorrect information. Several wouldn’t give out the temporary paper ID to ensure people could vote before their plastic card came in the mail. Others insisted that people needed birth certificates for IDs, which wasn’t true under Wisconsin law.
Paul Schmidt, who’s operated several license offices in the St. Louis area and whose wife continues to manage them, doubts that Missouri would have the same problem.
“Back in the [Gov. Matt] Blunt era, they talked about doing the same thing,” he said, referring to a provision in the 2005 law making IDs free if a person signed an affidavit saying they couldn’t afford them.
“We never gave any out, but there was a button on the system for voter ID and we would’ve known how to use it,” he said.
But even Schmidt, who worked in license offices for 33 years, would have a tough time helping Bob Pund.
Pund, 48, a paraplegic living in Columbia, Mo., was one of the victorious plaintiffs 11 years ago. A car accident has left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.
He has an ID, but it expired a year ago. Getting to the license office would require hiring someone to put him in a van and drive him there. And before that, he’d need to find his birth certificate at his parents’ house in Union.
“It’s not insurmountable,” he said, “but it’s too much for something that seems kind of unnecessary.”
It wouldn’t be hard to show a clear barrier for people with disabilities such as Pund’s.
“It’s not an obvious problem,” Burden said. “But it’s the kind of thing policymakers that aren’t on the ground don’t think about until it’s in the news or in court.”
The law would allow Pund’s disability check to count as one of several IDs he can use to vote if he’s willing to swear, under penalty of perjury, that’s he’s not committing fraud.
But hearing that perjury bit gave Pund, who’s been voting since he was 19, pause.
“That sounds intimidating,” he said. “I could see how someone with bad experience with government agencies could easily be put off by that.”
“They did the same thing in North Carolina,” she said, “and many communities of color and many new Americans, who weren’t all fluent in English yet, felt intimidated or didn’t understand the law.”
Then they did what most confused voters do, she said: “They stayed home.”
Maura Browning, Ashcroft’s spokeswoman, promised that poll workers would get all the training they needed to be helpful, not intimidating, to prospective voters, though she said there was nothing wrong with warning someone about perjury.
“You sign things under penalty of perjury quite often,” she said. “And there are consequences if you’re not being truthful.”
She also emphasized that every voter would also have plenty of time to figure out the new rules. Ashcroft’s office plans to have posters and pamphlets for local officials to hang up and hand out by the April 4 municipal elections.
And she called worries about other states’ problems coming to Missouri “disingenuous.”
“There should be no controversy over this bill,” she asserted.
Republicans say Missouri needs a photo ID law to prevent voter fraud. Democrats call it voter suppression.
Justin Levitt, a researcher at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, has determined that out of 1 billion ballots cast from 2000 to 2014, 31 were cast by someone pretending to be someone else.
That means 0.000000031 percent of those votes could have been stopped with photo ID.
When asked about such studies , Ashcroft, Alferman and other backers of requiring photo IDs for voting usually point to recent fiascos in St. Louis and Kansas City.
They’ve asked how anyone could argue against the concept after the race between Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, and former Democratic Rep. Penny Hubbard last fall, when Franks sued to have at least 238 unsealed absentee ballots thrown out.
A Post-Dispatch investigation found that people claiming to work for Hubbard filled out absentee ballots for at least two voters. A judge overturned Hubbard’s victory, and Franks won a re-do election.
“I think if you look at what happened this fall in Rep. Franks’ race, I think it’s clear why Missourians would want to secure their elections,” Ashcroft said.
But voter ID can stop only in-person voter fraud. A poll worker looks at you, looks at the photo on your ID and decides whether you match. There’s no way to do that with absentee ballots, so photo ID requirements wouldn’t have changed anything in Frank’s race.
“Voter ID targets a very specific kind of fraud that’s also the least common,” Burden, the elections researcher, said. “It doesn’t stop felons from voting or people cheating with absentee ballots or voting machine tampering, all of which are more likely.”
The Kansas City example Ashcroft cited at a news conference in St. Louis earlier this month also wilts under scrutiny.
When now-Sen. John Rizzo’s aunt and uncle illegally claimed a Kansas City address to vote in the Democratic primary for their nephew’s House district in 2010, they committed registration fraud, something already addressed in state law.
They were who they said they were when they voted; a photo ID requirement wouldn’t have stopped them from casting ballots. But John and Clara Moretina weren’t on the voter rolls in the 40th District. As soon as they voted, they revealed themselves.
When pressed, Ashcroft conceded the law passed last year wouldn’t apply to either case. But he contended that there were probably many cases of voter fraud that had gone without investigation and emphasized that anything that made elections seem more secure encourages participation.
“When you make elections secure, you make people feel like their votes matter more,” Ashcroft said.
Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St.Louis, doesn’t buy it.
“They’re just trying to scare people away,” he said.