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Challenge to Missouri voter ID law focuses on barriers faced by the elderly, disabled

Natalie Noblett, 61, of Carondelet, places an American flag on a “vote here” sign on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, at the St. Louis Public Library in Carondelet. A primary election for the St. Louis’ Board of Alderman President’s seat will be held on Sept. 13.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Natalie Noblett, 61, of Carondelet, places an American flag on a “vote here” sign in September 2022 at the St. Louis Public Library in Carondelet. A trial starting Friday will be the third time Missouri courts have weighed the merits of a law intended to combat fraud against right to vote without interference.

Missouri’s requirement for voters to show government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot will be on trial starting Friday.

Over four days, Cole County Circuit Judge John Beetem will hear familiar arguments that the law passed in 2022 unconstitutionally restricts the right to vote by imposing burdens that disenfranchise large numbers of people. In 2006 and 2020, Missouri courts struck down photo ID requirements for voting as violations of the state’s constitution.

Denise Lieberman, director of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, said the law being challenged now makes it even harder to vote for people who have difficulties obtaining the necessary identification.

“The current law is more strict than the version struck down in the previous cases,” Lieberman said.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who is the defendant in the case because of his role overseeing state elections, was not available for comment Wednesday.

To qualify as acceptable for voting, the identification must be Missouri- or federally issued with a photo, date of birth and an expiration date. Identification that has expired since the most recent general election is also acceptable.

A voter who does not have one of those forms of identification can cast a provisional ballot. For that ballot to be counted, the voter must return to the polling place and show an acceptable ID or hope that the signature on the ballot is considered a valid match with their signature on file.

Prior to the law taking effect in 2022, a voter could also use an out-of-state driver’s license or identification card, a student identification, a voter registration card issued by the local election authority, or a recent bank statement or utility bill mailed to them at their registered address.

In the pre-trial brief in defense of the law, the state’s legal team argued that having a valid photo ID is needed for everyday activities like obtaining medical care, medications, housing or employment.

“There is not a severe burden on the right to vote as the state has gone to great lengths to help voters obtain IDs, and IDs are now needed in many areas of modern life; moreover, the plaintiffs cannot show one instance of more than a hypothetical harm of a provisional ballot being rejected for an improper signature mismatch,” the attorney general’s office argued in a legal filing defending the law.

Three individual voters and two organizations – the NAACP of Missouri and the League of Women Voters of Missouri – are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The individual voters are:

  • Rene Powell a Columbia woman who has had epilepsy since she was a teenager and who also has mobility issues. Her non-driver identification expired in December 2021 and voting is the “only reason” she would need to get it renewed. Getting to the state license office is difficult because she relies on public transit that would drop her off “on a busy roadway with no sidewalks, preventing her from using her rollator.” 
  • Kimberly Morgan of Fenton, who has her name misspelled as “Kimberley” on her birth certificate, on her state-issued identification card and her marriage certificate. She has been unable to get it corrected to match her name on voter registration rolls because the state requires her to find a document at least five years old that contains her correct full name, her age or date of birth and the date the document was prepared.
  • John O’Connor of Columbia, a 90-year-old man who is almost completely homebound because of eyesight problems, hearing impairment and stability issues. Only with the assistance of his wife – and, the lawsuit alleges, the acceptance of an old, expired drivers license against department rules – he was able to gather the documents necessary to obtain an identification card.

“The burdens faced by Plaintiffs Powell, Morgan, and O’Connor are substantial and real,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in their pre-trial brief.
The state is arguing that Ashcroft’s office works diligently to help every person lacking identification obtain it and documents required, all at no cost.

The person in charge of that effort, the state contends, will “talk about the lengths she will go to in order to ensure that she clears away any roadblock the person may face in obtaining those underlying documents needed to get an ID, to include working with the voter to figure out requirements from out of state entities to obtain any of the person’s own underlying documents from those entities.”

Enacting a voter ID law has been a goal for Missouri Republicans since 2006. The first law, enacted that year, was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court in a decision that found it violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause and the right of qualified, registered citizens to vote.

The law, the court wrote, was not “narrowly tailored” to prevent voter fraud.

The latest attempt began with the passage of a constitutional amendment in 2016 that allowed lawmakers to add a voter ID requirement. The intent was to address the issues the court found in its 2006 decision.

But a law enacted in 2018 to implement the requirement was struck down because, the Supreme Court ruled, it required voters “to sign a contradictory, misleading affidavit” that they did not have required identification to cast a ballot using non-photo identification.

The new law does not require the affidavit but it also eliminates the use of any non-photo identification, Lieberman said. As a result, she said, the plaintiffs will show that the use of provisional ballots has gone up substantially and that few of those ballots are actually counted.

Matching signatures is tricky and most election clerks have no training as handwriting experts, Lieberman said. The use of electronic signatures also creates problems matching a signature signed on paper to one signed on a pad using a stylus or finger, she said.

“We have some local election authorities say there is no way we can accept that signature,” Lieberman said.

The main purpose of a voter ID law, proponents contend, is to prevent fraud at the polls. Such laws, the state argues in its legal filings, “protect the fundamental right to vote by deterring difficult to detect forms of voter fraud.”

The only type of voter fraud that a voter ID law prevents is in-person fraud at the polls, which is almost non-existent, attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote.

“Because the voter ID restrictions offer no discernable protection against voter fraud while imposing significant burdens upon voters—disenfranchising many in the process—there is no rational basis for them,” plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote, “they cannot be upheld under even the most deferential standard, let alone the strict scrutiny that properly applies.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.