The battle over voter ID laws is playing out across the nation, and in Missouri the issue represents one of the biggest differences between the two major candidates for secretary of state.
While any decision on voting laws ultimately will be made by the General Assembly, both Democrat Jason Kander and Republican Shane Schoeller agree that as the state's chief election officer, the next secretary of state will wield tremendous influence over how the politically divisive issue is resolved.
Schoeller, a four-term state representative from Willard, is a major proponent of strict photo ID laws, saying he believes Missouri "absolutely has a problem with voter fraud." While he acknowledged there have been no reported cases in Missouri of the type of fraud prevented by photo ID laws, he argued that even the appearance of impropriety is enough to warrant concern.
"This is about protecting the integrity of our electoral system," he said.
Schoeller's proposed solution includes mandating that every voter provide government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot and requiring proof of U.S. citizenship before registering to vote. He has pushed both ideas in legislation this year, but neither became law.
Kander, a three-term state representative from Kansas City, said he has always supported "sensible photo ID laws." But he thinks what's been pushed by Republicans in Missouri has been "extreme and unfair."
"I don't support unnecessary roadblocks to voting," Kander said. "The proposals put forth in Missouri would disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters, including members of the military."
Kander said that with no evidence that voter fraud is a problem in Missouri -- a recent study found only 10 alleged cases of in-person voter impersonation in any election in the United States since 2000 -- photo ID laws are a solution in search of a problem.
In Missouri, voters currently are 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.
A 2009 study by the secretary of state's office estimated that about 230,000 Missourians are registered to vote but lack a government-issued photo ID. Those most likely to be without a photo ID are the young, the elderly and minority voters.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states have passed photo ID laws, including Kansas.
Missouri Republicans pushed through a photo ID bill in 2006 that was later struck down by the state Supreme Court, which found the law amounted to a "heavy and substantial burden on Missourians' free exercise of the right of suffrage."
But this year, with a campaign for secretary of state on the horizon, Schoeller made the photo ID law his legislative priority.
His bill exempted people born before 1941 from the requirement and allowed them to cast a provisional ballot, which would be counted only after an election official verifies their identity by comparing their signature with a signature on file. A similar procedure would be followed for anyone who is not able to acquire a photo ID, Schoeller said.
"If you're a legal voter, there is nothing in that legislation that would stop you from casting a ballot," he added.
But forcing voters to cast provisional ballots is not a legitimate alternative, Kander argued, since those ballots are rarely counted.
In the 2008 general election, for example, nearly 7,000 provisional ballots were cast in Missouri, but only 1,700 were counted. That's because provisional ballots can be disqualified for a number of reasons ranging from a signature not matching one on file or a mistake in how the provisional ballot's affidavit was filled out.
As an alternative, Kander suggested what's done in Idaho, where people without a photo ID can cast a regular ballot by signing an affidavit verifying their identity under penalty of perjury.
"If you lie on that document, you can go to jail," Kander said. "That seems like a strong deterrent to me that doesn't disenfranchise eligible voters."
Schoeller and Kander also differ over legislation Schoeller sponsored this year that would have required photo identification when requesting an absentee ballot or for a copy of a photo ID to be included with a completed ballot.
Critics argued that Schoeller's bill could have made it difficult for members of the military stationed overseas to cast an absentee ballot.
Kander, a military veteran who served in Afghanistan, said making a copy of your ID while serving in a combat zone is easier said than done.
"Making sure we don't take away the rights they are risking their lives for is a major priority to me," he said.
Schoeller said his bill was mischaracterized by opponents, but in response to the criticism he dropped the absentee ballot measure. However, he continued to push legislation that would have required people registering to vote to provide a birth certificate, passport or other document that would prove they are a U.S. citizen.
Opponents worried the bill had the potential to disenfranchise naturalized citizens, arguing that documents needed to prove citizenship can be expensive and take months to acquire. They also pointed out that anyone caught lying about being a U.S. citizen in order to register to vote is already barred from ever becoming a citizen and could be removed from the country.
"My belief is that there likely are immigrants voting in this state illegally -- whether they know it or not -- and we just need to tighten up our statutes to ensure that can't happen," Schoeller said.
But Kander maintains that what's really needed is reform of the state's campaign finance and ethics laws. He noted that Missouri is the only state that allows lawmakers to accept both unlimited campaign donations and unlimited lobbyist gifts.
"I think we need a chief elections officer who will advocate for campaign reform, because I think that's the true fraud in our elections," Kander said.
Kander pointed to $400,000 in donations to Schoeller from retired investment banker Rex Sinquefield as evidence that changes are needed. The secretary of state oversees signature verification for initiative petitions and approves the summary voters see on the ballot. Over the years Sinquefield has spent millions supporting various ballot initiatives.
"The fact that there are donations of that size from individuals who are regular customers of the office is something Missourians should take into consideration," Kander said.
Schoeller countered that he's heard from many people who believe they haven't gotten a fair shake on ballot initiatives from Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat who announced last year that she was not seeking a third term in office.
"People are looking for someone who will leave politics out of the ballot process," Schoeller said. "I think you see people like Mr. Sinquefield supporting me because they know I'm someone who will be fair."
Other candidates facing off in the Nov. 6 election for the office are Justin Harter of Columbia, who represents the Constitution Party, and Cisse Spragins of Kansas City, who represents the Libertarian Party.