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Voter ID law gets grilling from Missouri justices


Jefferson City, MO – Missouri Supreme Court judges raised many questions Wednesday as they considered whether to reinstate a new state law that would require voters to show photo identification before casting ballots.

A lower judge threw out the law last month, saying it infringes on the fundamental right to vote.

On Wednesday, judges especially focused on the cost to obtain a birth certificate. That's because a birth certificate is needed to get a state ID card or a driver's license, and in Missouri, a certified copy costs $15.

A passport also can work to get a license or ID card, or to cast a ballot under the challenged law, but those cost more. "They all cost money," said Judge Richard Teitelman.

Supporters of the photo ID requirement argue it's needed to combat fraud and increase confidence that people's legitimate votes are being diluted, and say that more than 95% of Missourians already have a license or state ID card.

"Does it make a difference that it's only 3 percent (lacking an ID)?" asked retired Supreme Court Judge Charles Blackmar, who was sitting in for Judge William Ray Price Jr. Courts have established that "you should not have to pay for the right to vote."

Blackmar said he no longer drives and so didn't renew his license, but now would be unable to vote under the law. "This wouldn't qualify as a proper photo ID," he said, waving his old license to the courtroom.

Attorney Thor Hearne, representing the law's sponsor, Sen. Delbert Scott, said Blackmar could fall under an exception that allows those born before 1941 to cast a provisional ballot in any election without showing a photo ID.

Some judges asked whether that exception poses problems too. "Someone born before 1942 would have a higher threshold than someone born in 1941," Teitelman said.

Opponents say people impersonating someone else at the polls is rare and the photo ID requirement is a burden that especially harms the poor, elderly and disabled, who may be less likely to already have a driver's license. "This is not a public policy debate," attorney Don Downing told the court.

"At stake are the fundamental rights to vote of several thousands of our fellow citizens."

The lower judge also ruled against the law because he said it imposed an additional qualification on voting beyond what's spelled out in the Constitution.

But Hearne argued requiring a photo ID is not a new qualification but rather falls within the state's ability to regulate elections. "They have simply said this is the means by which we'll make sure someone satisfies the qualifications," he said.

Opponents said the provisional ballot option doesn't fix the flaws in the legislation, noting that less than 40 percent of provisional ballots cast were counted in the 2004 election. Also, starting in 2008, people must sign an affidavit swearing they could not obtain an ID because of their age, disability or religious belief. To count, their signatures also must match those on file with election authorities.

But one judge said the provisional ballot option offers some help. "It's much less an obligation to vote provisional than to obtain a photo ID," said Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr.

Attorneys also disagreed about whether such ballots would be available in every election previously, they were provided only in primary and general elections.

The Supreme Court did not indicate when it would rule; the requirement was supposed to take effect for the Nov. 7 election.

If the court reversed the ruling and reinstated the ID requirement, people lacking the proper identification this fall could cast a provisional ballot.

Critics also claimed the law imposed extra costs on local election authorities without providing state funding, in violation of the state Constitution. Supreme Court judges asked questions about how many of those costs are truly new and which ones were largely being done under previous law, such as printing more provisional ballots and sending notification cards to voters.

Assistant attorney general Robert Presson argued that the costs election officials cited are their estimates of what is needed, not anything specifically required by the new law.