JEFFERSON CITY – A bill that would require voters to provide a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot cleared a House committee Tuesday morning after two hours of testimony from critics who say it would disenfranchise thousands of voters.
Supporters of the measure say it’s an attempt to prevent voter fraud.
“If you don’t have the confidence that your leaders have been chosen in a fair process, it’s going to shake your confidence in the entire system,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller, a Republican from Willard who sponsored the legislation.
Critics argue that no one in Missouri has ever been prosecuted for committing the type of fraud prevented by a photo ID requirement – voter impersonation. They also point out that Missouri voters are already required to provide a form of ID before casting a ballot, a list that includes some without a photo, such as a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck.
“The only thing this bill does is erect barriers to the ballot for thousands of Missouri voters,” said Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney for the voting –rights group the Advancement Project.
The secretary of state’s office estimates that 253,496 Missourians are registered to vote but do not have a government-issued photo ID on file with the Department of Revenue.
In 2006, Republicans passed a photo ID bill that was later struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court. The court said the law amounted to a "heavy and substantial burden on Missourians' free exercise of the right of suffrage."
In response to the court’s ruling, lawmakers passed a proposed constitutional amendment allowing a photo ID requirement to vote. That amendment is scheduled to be on the ballot this fall, although it is being challenged in court.
Legislation implementing a photo ID requirement – which was similar to the bill Schoeller is currently sponsoring as well as one passed by a Senate committee on Monday – also passed last year, but was later vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Schoeller’s bill includes a mandate that the state cover the cost of obtaining a photo ID for anyone unable to do so. It would not, however, cover the costs of acquiring underlying documents needed to get a photo ID, such as a birth certificate or marriage license.
Jeremy LaFaver, a legislative consultant with the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said the cost associated with getting a driver’s license to vote amounts to a poll tax, a fee to vote charged in the South after the turn of the 20th century in combination with other measures to bar blacks and poor whites from voting.
"Voting is a constitutional right, and we believe this has the high potential to cut off that right for many Missourians," he said.
Shawn D'Abreu, director of government relations for the disability advocate Paraquad, said there are already a myriad of issues that make it harder to vote for people with disabilities, ranging from lack of reliable transportation to poor accessibility at polling places. Those same issues could make it harder for someone with a disability to acquire a photo ID needed to cast a ballot.
“So many people in my community already have a difficult time voting, why are we trying to make it even harder?” D’Abreu said.
Several exemptions to the photo ID requirement have been built into the bill, Schoeller said, including anyone born before 1941 or someone with a sincerely held religious belief against obtaining these forms of identification.
Exempted individuals would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that would be counted only after an election official verifies their identity by comparing their signature with a signature on file, Schoeller said.
“I don’t want to take away from anyone that freedom that they have been given,” Schoeller said. “Part of what this nation was founded on is the idea that we all get to vote. The only one we want to disenfranchise is the one who wants to cast a fraudulent vote.”
Provisional ballots are set apart from regular ballots and election authorities later determine whether they should count. In the 2008 general election, nearly 7,000 provisional ballots were cast in Missouri but only 1,700 were counted. Those ballots can be disqualified for a number of reasons, including a signature not matching one on file, voting in the incorrect precinct and errors in how affidavit attached to the ballot was filled out.
Provisional ballots are only mandated to be available in federal and statewide elections, a point of contention for critics of voter ID legislation. Schoeller said he’d be willing to work with Democrats to address that fact after a “discussion with local election authorities.”
Republican Rep. Don Gosen of Chesterfield dismissed the argument that because there have never been any prosecuted cases of voter impersonation in Missouri that they have never occurred.
“Just because they were never caught doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Stacey Newman of Richmond Heights said called passage of Schoeller’s bill “irresponsible,” saying it spends state money trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.
“The only thing this bill does is make sure we have registered voters who aren’t allowed to vote,” she said.
Jason Hancock is the Jefferson City Correspondent for the Star. Follow him on Twitter @j_hancock.