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Hispanic leaders ask for Missouri governor’s support in fighting voter ID laws

Gov. Mike Parson presents the Missouri State of the State address to a joint gathering of the House and Senate on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, at the state capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson addresses the House chamber in January at the state Capitol in Jefferson City.

Six years ago, Sal Valadez’s mother decided she wanted to take a U.S. citizenship test after living in the country for more than 60 years.

“I said, ‘Mom, you’re 80 years old. Your English isn’t fantastic. Why?’” said Valadez, co-chair of the language access committee with the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition. “And she goes, ‘Because I want to vote.’ And that, I think, embodies the spirit of most all of us who are naturalized citizens.”

His mother, Margarita Romero Valadez, passed the test and voted for the first time in the 2016 election.

Valadez shared his story with Gov. Mike Parson this week during the virtual Hispanic Capitol Day, where a panel of Hispanic leaders asked the governor for support on voting rights, education and pandemic relief, among other issues.

More than 30 election-reform measures have been proposed in the state legislature this year. The ones that are “most disturbing,” Valadez told Parson, are the measures that would require voters to have government-issued photo identification, such as a driver’s license or passport, to cast a ballot.

Currently, voters can present a variety of different forms of identification at the polls, including some that don’t include a photo, like a utility bill or voting card. Requiring a photo ID would have a disproportionate and harmful impact on the state’s Hispanic population, Valadez said, particularly for seniors like his mother.

“There are members in our Latino community and other communities who can vote, but they don’t drive,” he said.

About 137,700 registered votersin Missouri did not have a state-issued identification in 2017, according to an analysis from the Secretary of State’s Office.

Another 140,000 voters had expired IDs and 2,000 more voters had forfeited their driver’s licenses.

Valadez urged Parson to consider how few voter fraud cases have occurred in Missouri versus the tremendous impact such photo ID requirements would have Hispanics’ ability to vote when looking at these measures.

“We do have good elections at this point,” Parson responded to Valadez during Monday’s panel discussion. “We don’t have problems with some of the things that are seen in other places. So we’ll look and see what that legislation looks like as we move through the process — if it actually does make it to the finish line.”

Valadez replied: “You heard the governor, the system is not broken. But these are voter restrictions for us as a minority community.”

Days after the Hispanic group’s meeting with Parson, the Missouri House passed two voter ID measuresone that would put photo identification standards to vote in place and another enshrining the standards in the constitution.

“The state has an interest to make sure that there is some integrity and fraud protection and not being overly burdensome to the process,” said the voter ID proposal’s sponsor, Rep. John Simmons, R-Washington. “And I don’t feel that this is a burden.”

During the floor debate Thursday, Republicans said the state will pay for people to get state-issued photo IDs.

From 2017 to 2021, the state has given out 5,239 state-issued photo IDs for free, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

However, Democrats argued that cost isn’t always the main barrier in the process. Residents must present a number of documents, including birth certificates, that are difficult for many people to obtain – and they’re a cost the state doesn’t pay for.

‘Future of Missouri is Latino’

A screenshot of a video call conversation between Rita Chang, Governor Mike Parson and other Hispanic leaders.
Screenshot via Missouri Independent
Rita Chang, a community organizer with the advocacy nonprofit Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, speaks at the Hispanic Capitol Day on March 8, 2022

Aside from concerns about voting rights, education was another main topic that the Hispanic Capitol Day panelists discussed with Parson.

“Latino students are the fastest growing student demographic both locally and nationally,” said Edgar Palacios, the founder of Latinx Education Collaborative. “The future of Missouri is Latino.”

Increasing representation of Latino teachers is becoming more and more important in Kansas City and the state, he said. In the Greater Kansas City metro area, Palacios said over 51,000 students are Latino and only 1% of teachers of roughly 260 teachers are Latino.

Recruiting and retaining teachers is a big challenge, Parson said, and 50% of teachers “drop out of the education community” within the first five years.

“The starting pay for a teacher in the state of Missouri is last in the United States — $25,000 for a starting teacher,” Parson said. “Well that’s $12 an hour, is what we’re paying teachers. First of all, we got to do better than that.”

Parson said he aims to increase the base pay to $38,000, which would still only put Missouri at 30th in the nation.

Another thing that panelists asked Parson to consider was college tuition rates for undocumented students.

Rita Chang, a community organizer with the advocacy nonprofitInter-Faith Committee on Latin America, said Missouri charges undocumented students the same tuition rates as international students, which is nearly three times the amount that residents pay. And that includes students who qualify for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a federal designation meant to protect eligible immigrant youth who came to the United States when they were children from deportation.

“This inevitably results in students leaving the state for good to pursue opportunities in other states,” she said. “And this also applies to students who have DACA.”

More than 20 states currently have some sort of policy to allow undocumented students to attend state schools and pay the same rate as residents. Chang asked for Parson’s support in making Missouri one of them.

“Those are all things we’re taking a look at,” Parson said. “So I think those are things we’re trying to get better at.”

Chang also expressed concern that non-English speakers struggled with access to pandemic relief, such as utility and rental assistance and unemployment benefits.

All of the pandemic assistance was available to residents whether they were documented or not, Parson said, but they knew they had challenges with language barriers.

“Those are things we learned from that,” he said, “that we’ve got to do better on that.”

Missouri Independentis part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. 

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry for the Missouri Independent.