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Missouri advocates say new voter ID law is intended to suppress turnout — and it's working

A white paper sign with red letters is taped to a green door. It reads "Vote Here." A person is seen walking through an open door in the background.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A voter enters the gym where a polling location was set up on Tuesday, April 4, 2023 at Brush Creek Community Center

The NAACP and the League of Women Voters are challenging Missouri's 2022 voter ID law, arguing it imposes unconstitutional burdens on the right to vote without actually achieving the stated goal of reducing fraud. Two previous attempts by Missouri Republicans to require voter IDs have been struck down by the courts.

Almost one out of every 10 voters who cast ballots in Missouri’s two largest jurisdictions during recent elections lacked the identification now required at polls in the state, an expert testified Monday at a trial over the voter ID requirement.

Kenneth Mayer, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin, estimated that about 175,000 votes cast in St. Louis County – or 8.4% of the total – between 2018 and 2022 were cast by people who did not have a Missouri-issued drivers license, nondriver identification or a federally issued ID with their birth date. The numbers were a little higher in Jackson County, he said, and nearly double that in Boone County, home of the University of Missouri’s flagship campus.

Before the November 2022 election, acceptable identification at the polls included a voter registration card, a student identification card, a bank statement or utility bill or even an out-of-state drivers license if it had not expired.

Now anyone without the required state- or federally issued identification is given a provisional ballot. For it to be counted, the voter must return to the polling station and show the correct identification or count on the local election authority matching their signature to the one on file.

Overall turnout for 2022 was about 20% lower than the presidential election of 2020, Mayer testified, but the number of provisional ballots cast was four times higher than two years earlier.

Many people worried whether their identification would count likely didn’t vote, Mayer said.

“Voters frequently misunderstand the kind of ID that is required,” he said. “Half the people who don’t vote and say they didn’t vote because they lack ID actually had the proper ID.”

Mayer is an expert witness for the Missouri NAACP and the League of Women Voters, who are challenging the voter ID law as unconstitutional. He testified on the second day of a trial before Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem.

The trial is expected to last through Wednesday.

The NAACP and the league argue the law imposes unconstitutional burdens on the right to vote without actually achieving the state goal of reducing fraud in elections. The current law is the third since 2006 seeking to require a photo ID to vote. The previous two versions have been struck down by the courts.

At a news conference during a mid-day break on Monday, Nimrod Chapel, president of the Missouri NAACP, blamed Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft for pushing the new law as a political measure to suppress turnout.

Passing a photo ID law to vote has been a Republican priority since 2006. Most Democrats have been opposed to the idea.

“Jay Ashcroft, with this ridiculous measure, has worked hard to ensure that African-Americans and other voters throughout the state would be disenfranchised, understanding that the burden would be borne harder and most upon us,” Chapel said.

In court, the state is defending the law as a simple solution to make elections secure.

It is a “common-sense law designed to uphold that sacred right,” Assistant Attorney General Peter Donohue said during opening arguments on Friday.

The lawsuit focuses on the burdens faced by three individuals obtaining state-issued identification. The problems include finding transportation to a state license office, misspellings on important documents or lack of those documents entirely due to age.

Missouri will issue an identification card for a voter who needs one at no cost and help obtaining the documents, Donohue argued Friday. The burdens are minimal and the benefit is substantial, he said.

“Protecting the integrity of elections is absolutely a compelling governmental interest,” Donohue said.

That argument was challenged during expert testimony Monday morning. Over the past 20 years, there have been no instances where someone tried to vote at the polls using someone else’s name.

The only documented instance of someone in Missouri using someone else’s ballot dated from 2007, when a St. Louis County man was convicted of using the ballot mailed to his deceased mother to vote absentee and then voting in person under his own name.

That is not the kind of fraud that would be stopped by a voter ID law, said Lorraine Minnite, professor of political science at Rutgers University.

“Under the previous rules, there was very little voter fraud,” Minnite said.

Minnite also testified that she reviewed legislative hearings, testimony and debate in an attempt to determine the intent of lawmakers as they passed the bill.

“I couldn’t really figure out what the purpose was from what they were saying,” she said.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature for the Missouri Independent.
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