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Civic engagement organizations filed dual lawsuits this week against Missouri and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft over provisions in the state’s new voting bill, set to go into effect at the end of August.
The League of Women Voters of Missouri and Missouri NAACP argued in the lawsuits about the new voting law that the state’s photo ID requirement and restrictions on voter registration and outreach are unconstitutional and infringe on protected political speech.
When lawmakers first began discussing election law changes this session, HB 1878 was only seven pages and included a photo ID provision. The final version of the bill that passed totaled 58 pages and changed many aspects of election law in Missouri, following a nationwide trend of Republican-led states enacting new laws surrounding access to the ballot box.
Missouri’s law, which is scheduled to take effect Aug. 28, requires a state-issued photo ID to vote, a provision the state has attempted numerous times in the past, but has never withstood court challenges. It will also give the secretary of state’s office more oversight over local election authorities by allowing the office to conduct cybersecurity and voter roll audits.
The bill also bans election authorities from taking outside money to conduct local elections. And it would require anyone who registers more than 10 people to vote to notify the state and sign up as a solicitor. Civic engagement groups say that mandate prevents them from carrying out their missions.
After HB 1878 passed, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, released a new scorecard that ranks Missouri fourth among the states when it comes to what the think tank describes as “election integrity.”
A challenge to the new restrictions on voter engagement
One lawsuit in play asks the court to block voter outreach provisions of the new law.
If the law is upheld, it would require people to register with the state as a “voter registration solicitor” if they intend to sign up more than 10 Missourians as voters. It would also criminalize any form of compensation for workers or volunteers who register voters. Soliciting a voter to obtain an absentee ballot application will be prohibited under the new law and would be considered a felony. Those convicted could have their voting rights removed permanently as a result.
The League of Women Voters and Missouri NAACP in their voting lawsuit argue that the law, once enacted, infringes on their right to political speech and is written so vaguely that some interpretations could criminalize much of their activity.
The law will “chill and restrict” constitutionally protected speech, they argue.
The League of Women Voters of Missouri cited its frequent voter registration events, which are staffed by volunteers. The group argues that signing volunteers up as registration solicitors would be “burdensome and exclusionary.” They also predicted they would lose volunteers if they could no longer compensate them with things like parking fees or lunch during a day of volunteering.
The group claims that to comply with the law, the “number and effectiveness of the League’s voter registration activities will necessarily be reduced. The LWVMO will be forced to reconfigure its operations and divert volunteer resources from other important work.”
The Missouri chapter of the NAACP says in the lawsuits that the new prohibitions on voter outreach “disproportionately include populations served through Missouri NAACP’s advocacy and outreach activities.”
The group pointed to the possible felony offense for soliciting absentee ballot applications and what they say is vague language.
For example, they argue it would be unclear whether the new law would prohibit general voting advocacy or only targeted outreach, or whether the person soliciting an absentee ballot application can encourage someone to get an application or whether they must succeed in doing so.
David Kimball, an expert in American government and election administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the challenge of voter engagement efforts is a first in Missouri.
“Some other states have passed similar provisions, and at least in one case, I think that it was struck down by courts on free speech and free association grounds,” Kimball said. “Helping another person register to vote or providing them a form to ask for an absentee ballot are standard things that lots of organizations do to help their constituents and are a regular part of their job.”
If upheld, Kimball said, the new law will put Missouri in the “bottom half” of states when it comes to easy access to voting resources.
“In terms of laws that provide easier access to voter registration and voting – Missouri’s in the bottom half of the states now,” he said. “Most other states have provisions that are not as onerous. Voter fraud is extremely rare in Missouri, like in other states. There isn’t a strong basis for making it more difficult.”
Missouri’s long history with photo ID
The new law will also require Missourians to present a state-issued photo ID at their polling place when they cast a ballot. The ID cannot be expired or issued by a university, something the law currently allows. It will also prevent something like a voter identification card from being used to check into the polls.
Lawmakers over the years have passed various provisions requiring a photo ID to cast a ballot in Missouri, and voters supported a constitutional amendment requiring photo ID in 2016.
The latest lawsuit asks the court to block the new law from being enforced. Without a ruling, the photo ID provision would still be in effect in November. Some Missourians would have to take a trip to their local DMV office and obtain extra documents if they want to vote.
But Missouri courts have taken a dim view of photo-ID provisions in the past. In 2006 and 2020, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that previous iterations of the photo ID provision were unconstitutional in Missouri.
“The simplest explanation is that the Missouri Constitution has an explicit provision that you cannot infringe on the right to vote,” Kimball said. “And that’s been the basis in the past for courts to strike down a fairly strict photo ID requirement for voters.”
Kimball pointed to a 2021 appointment to the state Supreme Court by Gov. Mike Parson as a potential reason why Republicans may be trying the photo ID law again.
“There’s a new member appointed by Gov. Parson, who’s a Republican,” he said. “Perhaps they are thinking the composition of the state courts might be more receptive to their arguments for a photo ID requirement.”
A total of 35 states ask voters to show some form of identification at the polls, and Missouri is one of eight states considered to now have a “strict” photo ID law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eighteen states specifically require a photo ID.
Under the new law, Missouri voters who don’t have a photo ID would be able to cast a provisional ballot and come back before the polls close with their identification.
Voters can also sign the outside of their envelope so the election worker can cross-reference the voter signature on file. A 2014 report from the secretary of state’s office found that fewer than three in 10 provisional ballots were counted in the 2012 presidential election.
The groups say the provision will make it harder to vote for the Missourians who do not have a form of photo identification.
“For more than fifteen years, Missouri lawmakers have attempted to implement needless and discriminatory strict ID requirements to vote in Missouri — measures that the Missouri Supreme Court has concluded violate Missourians’ right to vote,” Denise Lieberman, the director and general counsel of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, said in a news release.
“The ID restrictions stand to burden thousands of Missouri voters who do not have or will face difficulty getting the limited ID required to cast a regular ballot — disproportionately voters of color, seniors, voters with disabilities, young voters, and low-wage workers,” she said. “We should be working to reduce barriers to participation for these communities, not make it harder to vote.”
The secretary of state’s office could not provide updated numbers on how many voting-eligible Missourians may be affected by the new law, but a 2017 report by the office found that more than 137,000 registered voters in Missouri did not have a form of state-issued photo identification. It also found that an additional 140,000 Missourians had expired IDs.