JEFFERSON CITY -- For the second time in two weeks, a scheduled public hearing on whether Missouri should mandate voters to have a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot is stirring controversy.
The idea itself is already controversial, with supporters saying voter ID laws are needed to combat voter fraud while critics see them as a tactic to disenfranchise voters.
This morning the House Elections Committee announced it would hold a public hearing on a voter ID measure in the side gallery of the House chambers instead of in one of the House's meeting rooms, a move that outraged Democratic lawmakers.
The area in question is rarely used for public hearings, Democrats said, especially for bills likely to generate substantial public interest. It lacks seating and isn't set up for witness testimony, they said.
Rep. Stacey Newman, a Richmond Heights Democrat, said the move appears to be designed to limit the ability for people to testify in opposition to the measure.
Adding to the concern, she said, is the fact that just last week the same committee tried to schedule a hearing on a voter ID bill for 6:45 a.m., which is 15 minutes before the Capitol is open to the public.
The start time was eventually pushed back to 8 a.m. -- when hearings traditionally begin -- after there were complaints that some members of the public would be unable to attend.
“In their zeal to enact voter suppression laws, House Republicans have engaged in a pattern of witness suppression to prevent opponents from speaking out against this unnecessary and harmful legislation,” said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat. “This is neither good government nor transparent democracy.”
Elections Committee Chair Sue Entlicher, a Republican from Bolivar, said there is "no underhandedness with this at all."
Since her committee heard testimony on an identical voter ID bill last week, she said she didn't realize another hearing would be needed. She called the hearing at the last minute, and was told there were no hearing rooms available.
"We're going to make sure there are chairs and that anyone who comes to testify will get the chance," she said. "I've already been contacted by people upset about this, and I do feel bad because I messed this up last week and I'm messing up again."
According to the House hearing calendar, committee meetings are taking place in six of seven hearing rooms at noon tomorrow. The Elections Committee scheduled its hearing to start after the House adjourns for the morning, which is expected to be around 11 a.m.
Newman, a staunch opponent of the measure, said there is no reason the bill needs to be rushed through the process.
"You've got people driving two hours to testify, some of them are elderly or disabled, and we're not even going to give them a place to sit," she said. "This is a bill about their right to vote, and I'd think we'd take it a little more seriously."
The bill in question would put a measure on the 2014 ballot asking voters to amend the state's constitution and allow the establishment of a photo ID requirement. The amendment is needed because the Missouri Supreme Court threw out a similar law in 2006 because it amounted to a "heavy and substantial burden on Missourians' free exercise of the right of suffrage."
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.