Lawmakers In Missouri Just Passed A Voter ID Bill That Could Disenfranchise 220,000 People

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JEFF ROBERSON
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JEFF ROBERSON

Republicans in Missouri have been trying to pass a voter ID bill for more than a decade, and they may soon claim victory.

This week, a supermajority of lawmakers sent a bill to the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon (D). Even if the governor vetoes, as he did to a similar one in 2011, lawmakers may have the votes to override it.

Democrats in the state Senate staged an all-night filibuster last week to stop the ID bill, but backed down after striking a compromise deal with Republicans.

The deal involves amendments to the bill that progressive lawmakers say will “ensure no voter is denied his or her Constitutional right to vote.” For instance, the state would be required to provide free photo IDs and any underlying documents necessary to obtain them, such as birth certificates and Social Security cards. Additionally, voters who are unable to get the required ID for whatever reason would be able to sign a legally-binding affidavit promising they are who they say they are, and could then vote with regular ballots.

This is aimed at preventing problems that have surfaced in other states with voter ID laws, including Wisconsin and Texas, where citizens who can’t afford a copy of their birth certificate or lack the means of transportation to get one have been disenfranchised.

Rep. Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) called it “the most generous photo ID bill that this country has seen.”

Yet voting rights advocates, including Laura Swinford with the organization Progress Missouri, say they’re not pleased. “They said this will minimize the effect on Missouri voters, but I don’t frankly agree with that interpretation,” she told ThinkProgress. “Depending on how you were raised and socialized, signing documents can be a barrier in and of itself.” She added that it can be especially intimidating for less-educated voters to be handed a complex form that, if filled out improperly, can result in a felony charge for perjury.  Election law experts like UC Irvine professor Rick Hasen agree. Hasen has argued that “soft” voter ID laws that include affidavit loopholes can disenfranchise just as many people as stricter versions.

“Many voters simply give up in anger and frustration” when navigating a complex bureaucracy, he explained. “Many voters don’t even know what an ‘impediment’ is, let alone how to take advantage of the exemption.” He characterized safety net provisions like the affidavit as “nothing more than weak attempts to deal with the original harshness of voter-ID laws.”

The Missouri Secretary of State’s office estimated in 2014 that about 220,000 registered voters lack the proper ID and could be disenfranchised by a voter ID law. Many more who are not registered could be impacted as well. The implementation of the law would cost as much as $17 million over three years, and the compromise bill stipulates that if the legislature doesn’t appropriate enough funds to help people get IDs, the law wouldn’t be enforced.

Even if Gov. Nixon signs the bill, it won’t start influencing elections right away. The legislature has to first pass an additional bill to put a measure before voters on the next election’s ballot to amend the state constitution. This extra step is required by the strong voting rights protections already on the books. Democrats in the legislature have warned that opening up the state constitution for changes could lead to stricter voting laws in the future.

The battle over voter ID in Missouri comes as states across the country are grappling with their voting requirements. Republicans in Missouri and elsewhere argue that ID laws are necessary to prevent fraud at the ballot box, despite such fraud being nearly non-existent. Meanwhile, the photo ID laws already in place in 17 states have been shown to suppress turnout among African American and younger voters, so much that they could decide the outcome of some elections. Nationally, as many as 11 percent of voting-age Americans lack a government-issued photo ID. In key swing states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Virginia, the hundreds of thousands of people who fall into that category could easily tip the scales this November.

Update:

Missouri Republicans passed the second necessary bill Thursday night to put the voter ID measure on the ballot this fall.

“Passing these voting restrictions was reckless, vindictive and a nefarious act aimed at dismantling democracy,” said Reverend Cassandra Gould, the Executive Director of Missouri Faith Voices and member of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition. “It amounts to dancing on the graves of people of color who fought, sacrificed and were killed so we could have this right, while spitting in the face of their descendants.”

Gould, whose mother fought for voting rights for African Americans in the 1960s, added that she “never imagined having less rights in 2016 than my parents had in 1965.”

Unless the governor vetoes the bill, Missouri voters will vote in November on whether to require a photo ID at the ballot box. An estimated 220,000 eligible voters lack such an ID and could be disenfranchised.