JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri’s Republican-controlled House has again approved legislation to require voters to show photo identification at the polls.
The House on Thursday advanced the photo-based ID effort with its approval of companion legislation — a bill setting up the framework for voter ID and a related constitutional amendment. The amendment would have to be approved by the state Senate and by voters in the November 2014 statewide election before the stricter identification requirements would become law.
“This is a pretty common-sense proposal,” said House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka. “It protects the integrity of the voting process.”
It remains to be seen how the effort — which has become a yearly issue in the House — will fare in the GOP-controlled Senate this year.
Already, Missouri requires voters to show some form of nonphoto identification, such as a utility bill or a voter registration card. But proponents of the photo-based effort say that makes the state vulnerable to voter fraud that can affect elections.
“I think it is too easy for someone to pick up someone’s utility bill or even someone’s voter ID card and go to the polls and use that to cast a ballot,” said Rep. Tony Duggar, R-Hartville.
Nationally, the push to require photo identification has been picking up steam, but Missouri’s state constitution places a higher emphasis on the right to vote.
The state Supreme Court struck down a 2006 photo ID law as unconstitutional before it went into effect. This time, lawmakers hope to avoid that problem by changing the constitution.
But critics of the measure say the photo requirement is unnecessary and will create an additional burden that falls disproportionately onto older, poor and minority voters — groups that tend to sway Democratic.
Democrats have noted that there have been no documented cases of fraud in Missouri that could have been prevented through a photo requirement.
Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City, said the state shouldn’t be creating more bureaucratic hurdles for people who want to vote.
“The end result is innocent people will be hurt,” he said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states have some form of photo-ID requirement in effect. Five others have passed photo identification laws, but they have not yet been implemented.
Arkansas, which operates under a requirement similar to Missouri’s current law, also is weighing stricter photo-based guidelines at the Capitol this year.
In a frequently heated debate spread out over two days and more than six hours, Missouri House members mentioned racism, guns and religion, before eventually passing both proposals in largely party-line votes.
“Jim Crow is alive in this room today,” said Rep. Chris Kelly, a Democrat from Columbia who served in the Legislature in the 1980s and ’90s before returning in 2009. “This is the single most immoral act that I’ve ever seen happen in my time in the General Assembly.”
Rep. Nick Marshall, R-Parkville, called Kelly’s reference to racially motivated laws that permeated the South through the 1960s a “cheap shot,” but Kelly said that even if it’s not the Legislature’s intent, the requirement will make it “harder for many poorer African-Americans to vote.”
“The effect of the bill is indisputably racial,” Kelly said. “I can’t look into anyone’s soul and determine the motive.”
Democrats pressed the Republican majority to come forward with examples of voter fraud that could be stopped if the state adopts the new ID requirements.
“Fraudulent votes are just that — most of them aren’t going to be seen,” Rep. Myron Neth, R-Liberty, responded.
Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, said the effort is intended to protect the right to vote — not harm it. He referred to the legislation as a “firewall.”
“There are people out there who see elections as a game,” he said. “Right now there’s no requirement to prove who you are.”
Cox said it wouldn’t be hard to create fake documents and use them to vote under the current system, which allows a voter to show a utility bill as a form of identification.
“I could create 10,000 utility bills that would look pretty good, if so inclined,” he said.
Under the House-approved legislation, voters who don’t have photo identification when they show up to the polls will be able to cast provisional ballots. The legislation also would require the state to provide free IDs to people who don’t have them.