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story.lead_photo.caption Two voters sit and fill out their ballots at Trinity Lutheran Church in Russellville during the 2020 presidential election. Two bills approved by the Missouri House seek to modify election protocols, such as requiring photo identification. Photo by Liv Paggiarino / Fulton Sun.

Potential changes to Missouri election rules and voting procedures carrying the possibility of future court challenges reached Senate hearings last week.

With 2 1/2 weeks left in the legislative session, the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee heard testimony Wednesday on two bills approved by the House that seek to modify election protocols.

House Bill 334, proposed by Rep. John Simmons, R-Washington, requires photo identification of voters. Voters would need a photo ID to vote absentee, and voters who don't bring a photo ID to the polls on election day could still cast a provisional ballot. But they would need to return later on election day with a form of identification that satisfies photo ID requirements for their vote to count.

The bill would also remove the secretary of state's obligation to notify voters of changes to election rules, including a photo ID requirement.

HB 738, from Rep. Don Rone, R-Portage, contains a variety of changes to election protocols. That bill would require the use of paper ballots, permit no-excuse absentee voting, prohibit mail-in voting and add the photo ID requirement, among other changes.

Changes to election laws in the six months preceding presidential elections, like what happened in 2020, would also be prohibited. Anyone who registers 10 or more voters would need to register, and no one could be paid to register voters.

Allegations of voter fraud stemming from the 2020 presidential election lie close to the heart of the issue.

"I want to ensure Missouri is never in the same position as Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin," Rone said, referring to states that drew scrutiny during post-election vote-counting.

The topics aren't new ones in Missouri, though.

In 2016, voters approved a state constitutional amendment allowing lawmakers to institute a photo ID requirement for voting. Part of the ensuing legislation, which included an affidavit voters without valid identification needed to sign, was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court in January 2020.

In its opinion, the court called the affidavit requirement "contradictory and misleading," and the affidavit is not part of the new legislation. The new legislation, rather, tries to work around the court's ruling.

"This is just a response to that Supreme Court decision," Simmons told the Senate committee.

Supporters and opponents of photo ID legislation, specifically, tend to divide along party lines.

Republican lawmakers have argued it prevents fraud, while Democrats say it keeps valid voters from the polls.

"Voter ID is unconstitutional, and we know the results," Sara Baker, the ACLU of Missouri's legislative and policy director, wrote in testimony against HB 738. "When states implement voter ID, voters, especially voters of color, elderly voters and low-income voters stand to miss out."

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, testified in favor of both bills Wednesday.

"I think it's a wonderful thing," he said of identification requirements. "We've had some photo ID in the state since 2017, and what we've proven is we can make our elections more secure without turning away a single registered voter. More votes have been counted because of this law than would have been counted under the old law."

If a voter doesn't have a photo ID, they can request a free nondriver license from the state's Department of Revenue. The Secretary of State's office can also help with obtaining official documents for voters who need them, Ashcroft said.

That program, while available, isn't commonly used. Ashcroft said the state issues around 900 free IDs for voting in typical years, with that number going up to around 1,400 for bigger election years.

Those who oppose the legislation say the low usage isn't voters' fault.

"That is not a reflection of the numbers of people, the number of valid voters who lack a photo ID, but the lack of outreach by the secretary's office," said Denise Lieberman, the director of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.

Christine Dragonette works with St. Francis Xavier church on Saint Louis University's campus and its program that helps people through the process of obtaining state IDs and official documents. She said many people just aren't aware they can get a free ID to vote.

"I can't think of a single instance when I've spoke with someone and asked them if they've heard about ShowIt2Vote or the free ID to vote and not gotten a blank stare," Dragonette said. "People don't know about it."

Beyond the argument of voting accessibility is the question of how effective a photo ID requirement is at preventing fraud.

Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller, a Republican, argued fraud is prevalent enough to warrant preventive action.

"We can never underestimate the attempts some people will go to if they do want to change the outcome of the election," he said, pointing to elections that have finished in one-vote margins or ties and could be greatly affected by fraud. "While it may be rare, we also know that elections can be decided by one vote."

Schoeller told the committee he knows of one prosecuted case of voter fraud since becoming county clerk in 2015. In answering a senator's question, he also said the effects of any potential voter fraud tend to be negligible, until they aren't.

"That's the one instance we found of it," Schoeller said. "But again, as I tell people, fraud doesn't make a difference until you have that one vote outcome."

Lieberman argued even in proven situations of voter fraud, proposed legislation wouldn't have helped.

"None of those would have been remedied by the use of photo identification," she said.

According to a September report from Reuters, there were 31 impersonation incidents — the sort of fraud photo ID requirements target — out of more than 1 billion ballots cast nationally from 2000-14.

Because of that, Lieberman and other opponents don't see a reason for action.

"This legislation is not only unconstitutional and illegal, but it is a solution in search of a problem," Lieberman said.

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