Last November, Missourians approved a ballot measure which cleared the way for legislators to pass a bill to make a photo ID a requirement for voting. The law had been on the wish list of state Republicans for about a decade after the Supreme Court struck down a previous voter ID bill for creating “a heavy burden on the fundamental right to vote.” This time, however, Republicans are assuring the public that the voter ID requirement isn’t meant to block people, particularly the poor and people of color, from the polls.
“We’re here to let people know we want your vote,” Missouri Secretary of State Jay Aschroft said at a public meeting Monday after the law went into effect last week. “And if you’re not registered, we’ll get you registered. We want you to participate.”
We’re not buying it.
Frequently pushed as a necessary means to tackle voter fraud — the bogeyman of our electoral system — voter identification laws are a part of an ongoing strategy to roll back decades of progress on expanding access to the polls. Many Americans simply do not have the types of identification that states turn into prerequisites for voting when enacting these laws. These voters are disproportionately low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
To its credit, Missouri’s voter ID law did include provisions that shift the economic burden of the new requirements onto the state rather than the voters. Under the law, the state is required to fully fund “all costs” associated with implementing the photo ID requirement, including paying for IDs and the necessary underlying documents, such as birth certificates, for anyone who does not have them. The law also mandates funds for public education on the new voter requirements and training for poll workers tasked with enforcing them.
Since the ballot initiative passed in November, the state has appropriated just a fraction of the necessary funding to implement the new voter ID law, even as local and state special elections loom. We are seeking a temporary restraining order to block the law from being in effect during a local special election, for which in-person voting begins on Monday, June 12. An additional 52 Missouri counties go to the polls on August 8.
Missouri would do well to heed the lessons of other states that have approached effective implementation of new voter requirements as an afterthought. In Texas, the Fifth Circuit slammed the state’s lackluster voter education efforts and poor implementation of its voter ID law as creating additional burdens on Texas voters. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, ran an expensive public education campaign around its voter ID law, which a judge noted to be full of uncorrected errors in his ruling striking the law down for burdening citizens. Wisconsin’s poor training of DMV employees tasked with issuing free voter IDs led to a judge ordering an investigation into such misinformation in the lead up to the November 2016 election.
Missouri legislators were clearly aware of the need for funding and a public education campaign. Otherwise, they would not have written these requirements into the terms of the law. Now it’s time for the state to keep its promises to voters and not let poor planning make a bad law even worse.