This article was originally published in St. Louis Public Radio.
The election omnibus bill that Missouri lawmakers passed this year was originally a seven-page attempt to again implement a photo ID requirement in order to vote in the state.
What made it past the finish line is a more than 50-page bill that includes not only the photo ID requirement, but also changes to absentee voting and the registration process, as well as new rules for election authorities across Missouri.
Now as the bill awaits the signature of Gov. Mike Parson, proponents and opponents are preparing to either enforce or challenge it.
One aspect of the bill that is almost guaranteed to face a legal challenge is the requirement for voters to provide a photo ID in order to cast their ballot.
A previous attempt at implementing a photo ID was struck down two years ago by the Missouri Supreme Court because the sworn statement portion of the law was deemed misleading.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is confident that this bill won’t have the same fate as its predecessor.
“We've made it very clear, it's very understandable to the people. And of course, we can still truthfully say, if you're registered, you can vote. And that could never be said before 2017,” Ashcroft said.
But that doesn’t mean opponents won’t try to make this year’s attempt at requiring a photo ID fail again.
Denise Lieberman, director of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, said that while it's urging Parson to veto the bill, she is prepared to challenge it in court if it does become law.
“This measure likely violates numerous provisions of both law and statute. The photo ID provision seems to clearly violate the Missouri Constitution's promise that the right to vote is fundamental to Missouri voters,” Lieberman said.
Proponents of the photo ID measure, such as state Rep. Peggy McGaugh, R-Carrollton, who formerly served as the Carroll County clerk, pointed to other situations where photo IDs are required.
“I don't want to sound mean, or out of touch. But I think 2022 is different than even a few years ago, with having so many availabilities to have an ID,” McGaugh said.
But for Marilyn McLeod, president of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, beyond the issue of requiring a photo ID in the first place, she also disapproves of the bill’s list of approved documents that would satisfy the requirement.
Those include a nonexpired Missouri driver’s or nondriver’s license as well as other forms of identification that are issued by either the State of Missouri or the United States. But some common forms of photo ID, such as a student ID, would not count.
McLeod said that under the bill, there are many examples in which even if people had a photo ID, they would not be able to vote.
“Your license just happened to expire right before an election, you didn't realize that, and you don't have time to get it renewed, you would not be permitted to vote,” McLeod said.
She said this new restriction could lead to the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters.
No-excuse absentee voting added
While the photo ID requirement received opposition from Senate Democrats during debate, one part of the bill they did manage to include is two weeks of no-excuse, in-person absentee voting before an election.
State Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, said this measure will be a help for those who just wouldn’t be able to vote on Election Day for a variety of reasons.
“To be able to provide them with a time period to be able to get that done around their schedule, and not be confined to having to do it on a Tuesday before 7 p.m., I think is extremely helpful,” Williams said.
While Ashcroft said that he isn’t a fan of early voting and that it gives a greater advantage to incumbents, he does approve of the two weeks of no-excuse absentee being in-person as opposed to through the mail.
“I think we should be pushing people to vote, not how they mark on the ballot, but vote in a way so that they know their ballot will count,” Ashcroft said.
According to data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, of the more than 905,000 mail-in ballots returned by voters in Missouri in the 2020 election, around 5,400, or 0.6%, were rejected.
But the no-excuse absentee voting being in-person and the continued requirement for a photo ID are reasons why Lieberman calls this provision both conditional and a farce.
“For people, again, who lack transportation or have to work, they're out of luck. People that need to get a ballot by mail, they're out of luck. But even more, this provision is tied to the photo ID provision, and states that if the photo ID provision is struck down, no early voting will be available to anyone,” Lieberman said.
That provision is called a non-severability clause, meaning the fates of the photo ID requirement section and no-excuse absentee voting are tied together.
Williams said losing that voting window would be concerning, but that’s how the bill is written.
“If it means striking down some language that would infringe on folks' right to vote, I do think that’s the sacrifice that we'll have to make,” Williams said.
Voting registration and further absentee changes
The bill also makes changes in the process to register to vote.
The legislation bars anyone not employed or paid by a governmental entity from being paid to register voters. McLeod said this change would stop some of the staff for the League of Women Voters of Missouri from helping people register to vote.
“For example, in St. Louis, they help with the naturalization ceremony. And they often help register people to vote. That would be illegal,” McLeod said.
McGaugh said this provision has less to do with work of organizations like the League of Women Voters of Missouri and more with such applications being filled out ahead of time.
“I think people think maybe that is an area where maybe some fraud comes from,” McGaugh said.
In addition to the changes in registering to vote, there is new language regarding the process of applying for an absentee ballot. According to the legislation, it would be illegal for any individual, group or party to solicit a voter to obtain an absentee ballot application.
“This will have the intended effect of making it harder for the very neediest of voters, the people who most need to get those ballots by mail to be able to do so,” Lieberman said.
New requirements for election authorities
Voters aren’t the only ones who will see changes when they go to the polls. The bill also creates new requirements and changes for those who run elections.
Those changes include giving the secretary of state the ability to audit the list of registered voters in any local election authority, as well as require those authorities to conduct maintenance updates.
For Eric Fey, the Democratic director of elections for St. Louis County, among the biggest challenges he sees now with the bill is the uncertainty on how some of these provisions will be enforced.
“It could have a potentially significant effect on how we do our jobs. Or it could have a relatively insignificant effect on how we do our jobs. We just don't know yet,” Fey said.
One change Fey said he did find troubling was prohibiting election authorities from accepting private funds to go toward running elections, with only some exceptions for in-kind donations like voting locations or personal protective equipment.
“For the legislature to just flat out say, ‘Well, you can't get any kind of private money anymore,’ with no guarantee that they'll actually fund elections moving forward, that was pretty frustrating,” Fey said.
However, some of the changes were requested by election officials, said Fey. Those include allowing Missouri residents who moved counties between elections to update their address on Election Day and still be able to vote.
“It was common in every county on Election Day voters would come to the election authority’s office. And they would be very frustrated because they had been voting in Missouri for years, some cases decades,” Fey said. “But they didn't understand that there was this provision that you had to reregister to vote and your new county of residence rather than just a regular address change.”
Another is the removal of the state’s presidential preference primary, which will instead have Missouri rely solely on caucuses to determine its choice candidates.
McGaugh said that decision was popular among the election authorities she talked to during a conference, as it was tough to conduct a presidential primary and the April general election roughly a month apart.
“I'm the one that brought up the presidential preference primary being eliminated and nearly got a standing ovation. So they're ready. It's not anything that the clerks are tied to,” McGaugh said.
Even if Parson signs the bill into law, according to Ashcroft it would go into effect on Aug. 28, which wouldn’t be in time to impact the state’s primary election on Aug. 2. Instead, the general election in November would be the first to see any changes.
Ashcroft said that’s why he hasn’t spoken up a lot about the changes yet.
“I don't want someone to go vote in August and say, hey, there was a problem. They weren't doing this, because that won't be the law yet,” Ashcroft said.
As to whether some of these changes are even necessary, especially when Missouri’s elections are already considered secure, that answer is just as split as support over the bill itself.
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