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County GOP legislator is at center of voter photo ID, tax credit debates

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 15, 2010 - State Rep. John Diehl, former chairman of the St. Louis County Election Board, is the chief sponsor of a House bill that makes another stab at requiring Missourians to show a government-issued photo ID from Missouri or the federal government before they can vote.

The bill, which won first-round approval from the full chamber on Wednesday, offers "a middle-of-the road, common-sense approach,'' said Diehl, R-Town and Country. He contended that the bill, HB1966, also addresses the legal questions that prompted the Missouri Supreme Court to strike down an earlier version -- signed into law by then-Gov. Matt Blunt -- in 2006.

Critics disagree. But in an apparent quest to woo some of them, Diehl's bill also would allow absentee voting for any reason during a four-day period (Saturday-Wednesday, excluding Sunday) that would begin 10 days before the election.

Now, Missourians who vote absentee must swear that their situation meets one of the state's strict requirements (such as being out of their voting jurisdiction on Election Day), although many experts and politicians suspect that many absentee voters in Missouri actually lie to vote early.

But voting isn't the only issue that is putting Diehl, a first-termer, in the news. He's also a major player in the legislative fight over tax credits and an upcoming one over contractors' property liens.

Last week, for example, Diehl and House Majority Leader Pro Tem Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, were spotted in Clayton meeting with corporate executives and developers described by Diehl as "stakeholders'' in the tax-credit fight.

In the tax-credit battle, Diehl is acting on behalf of many urban Democratic officials -- such as St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay -- who oppose efforts by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, and some outstate legislators to cut back on their use.

The governor and his allies say that Missouri can't afford to grant tax breaks of more than $200 million a year to developers, restorers of historic buildings and others. Diehl and his allies, including Slay, say slashing the tax credits will hurt state coffers by discouraging economic redevelopment.

Diehl also sided with Slay and St. Louis Democrats in their unsuccessful quest to persuade the Legislature to end the 150-year state control of the St. Louis Police Department.

Diehl cites such efforts as evidence that he can seek common ground with Democrats.

And in the coming weeks, Diehl expects to tangle with contractors and subcontractors over his bill aimed at curbing surprise property liens, which he says have become a major problem in the St. Louis area as home-construction firms have folded for financial reasons.

Election Board post influences views on voter ID 

Diehl, 44, is in the midst of his first term in a safe Republican seat. But there are already rumors that he is expected to move up the ranks of House Republicans in 2011, by gaining either a leadership post or key committee chairmanship.

Diehl declined Wednesday night to discuss such speculation. But he did acknowledge that he's enjoying his legislative job, even if it is challenging "to juggle career and my family."

Married with three children, Diehl is a partner in the St. Louis law firm of Armstrong Teasdale LLC.

Although a staunch Republican, Diehl generally won praise for his four-year stint as head of the St. Louis County Election Board.

Among other things, he oversaw the county's difficult switch from punch-card ballots to the current system of optical scan and touch screens. Arguably the biggest controversy during his stint was the board's firing of longtime county Democratic elections director Judy Taylor, who later filed suit.

Diehl says that in his Election Board post, where he dealt with a bipartisan board and staff, "you have to forge bipartisan consensus."

He contends that he has tried to use that same approach with the photo ID/early voting bill.

While discounting Democratic critics who Diehl said brought up "the same tired arguments,'' he added that he understands some of the concerns about legitimate voters who can't obtain government-issued photo IDs for physical, financial or religious reasons.

But Diehl contends that most people should be required to show such IDs as a guard against fraud. He also believes his bill could pass legal muster because it allows an "out'' for would-be voters who show up at the polls without the required photo ID.

They can either vote provisionally, and show up later with the required ID, or they can vote if they sign an affidavit saying they can't acquire the approved ID because of (as worded in the bill):

"1) A physical or mental disability or handicap of the voter, if the voter is otherwise competent to vote under Missouri law; [or]

"(2) The inability to pay for a birth certificate or other supporting documentation that is necessary to obtain the identification required to vote under this section;

"(3) A sincerely held religious belief against the forms of personal identification described in [subsection 1 of] this section; or

"(4) The voter being born on or before January 1, 1941."

Diehl also emphasizes that the bill provides for free government-issued photo IDs for all Missourians who don't have drivers licenses. Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan has said her office's records indicate that more than 150,000 registered Missouri voters lack drivers licenses, the most common form of government-issued photo ID.

Critics, including most House Democrats, contended during Wednesday's debate that Diehl's bill is targeting the poor and minorities -- as well as college students from other states who change their registration to Missouri. Under Diehl's measure, such students would have to obtain a Missouri drivers license before they could vote in the state.

State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, was among the opposition leaders. She contends that Diehl's bill likely is unconstitutional, and is yet another example of how Republicans ignore decisions -- by the courts or the public -- that they disagree with. She cited the Legislature's decision in 2003 to allow Missourians to carry concealed weapons, despite a 1999 statewide vote against it.

Newman and other Democrats also challenged the fraud argument, citing the lack of convictions in Missouri for fraudulent votes.

She also emphasized that many elderly voters have no birth certificates, which now are needed to get drivers licenses in Missouri (an alternative is a passport, which also generally requires a birth certificate). Diehl said that's why his bill exempts people 69 or over from the photo ID requirement.

The measure would avoid having to go before Nixon, a Democrat who has indicated problems with previous photo-ID requirements, by going instead before voters on this fall's November ballot.

If approved by voters, the constitutional amendment then would go into effect immediately, but the practical effect would mean it wouldn't be a requirement for a statewide general election until 2012.

Wednesday's changes included the addition of provisions, pressed by Democrats and supported by Diehl, to make it easier for registered voters in the military and stationed overseas to cast timely ballots. The bill would allow military personnel to receive and sent voter-registration applications electronically, instead of just by mail.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.