In the beginning, the states created the Articles of Confederation. The Union was divided and weak, and the need for a central government hovered over the new nation.
In 1787, the Founding Fathers said, “Let there be three branches of government, a system of checks and balances, and a bicameral legislature to please both small and large states.” After four months of deliberation, the Founding Fathers saw what they had made, and it was very good. And there was the United States of America, and each of the framers returned to their home states.
If only crafting the Constitution had been that easy. As we know, the Philadelphia Convention involved intensive negotiation and compromise, but the result was a trailblazing government system for which the U.S. became a symbol of political innovation. It is precisely that innovation that current U.S. lawmakers must utilize in order to find solutions to pressing national issues, such as the ongoing battle over voter photo ID laws.
In my last column, I argued the strict new Texas voter ID laws and their associated costs might deter minority and impoverished citizens from voting. But the question of possible disenfranchisement is just as relevant in Missouri as it is in Texas, a state previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June). In fact, between December 2012 and May 2013, both houses of the Missouri General Assembly proposed a total of three bills and four constitutional amendments to make stricter voter ID laws possible in our state.
Lawmakers who promote stricter voter ID laws, including those in Missouri, often use the “fraud prevention” card as a justification. But I will not argue over the legitimacy of that purpose; let’s leave that to the states to carry the burden of proof. Regardless of the motive, Missouri should adjust certain requirements contemplated in the bills proposed by the GA, which have been either vetoed by the governor or struck down by Missouri courts.
Missouri photo ID requirements would be quite standard: a driver’s license or any other documentation that includes the person’s name and picture, displays an expiration date and is issued by the federal or state government. The most recent piece of legislation even contemplates an exemption for those who, due to a disability, advanced age or lack of resources to pay for a birth certificate, cannot obtain a valid photo ID. After claiming an exemption, a voter could cast a provisional ballot.
But the most recent voter-ID bill in Missouri, House Bill 48, would require that an election official verify if the person was eligible to vote in that specific precinct and that the voter’s signature matches a signature on file for provisional ballots to be counted. While the last requirement might appear non-controversial, it could pose a serious threat to the voting rights of Missourians who, due to age or disability, cannot produce a consistent signature. HB48 does not provide an exemption for this particular case.
After a provisional ballot is cast, the voter would have a three-day period to return with a photo ID. However, one requirement for obtaining an ID is a birth certificate, which usually takes six to eight weeks to receive. In practical terms, then, it is not possible to produce an ID within this required three-day window.
Even if a voter casts a provisional ballot and then produces a photo ID in time, the chances of being included in the electoral process are slim. According to a 2013 report created by the Missouri Secretary of State, only 29.4 percent of provisional ballots cast in the 2012 general election were eventually counted.
Moreover, the bills could potentially challenge a state constitutional provision that guarantees the right to vote to citizens 18 and older who have registered within the appropriate timeframe. This right might be in danger because most citizens who would not cast a ballot due to the burden of obtaining a photo ID are otherwise eligible voters. For this reason, voter ID laws cannot become effective without voters’ approval of a constitutional amendment.
After the Missouri General Assembly reconvenes in January 2014, it will be a matter of time before new voter ID laws are filed. This time, legislators must act carefully so that the mechanisms allegedly intended to strengthen the electoral system do not weaken the ability of citizens to vote. In this respect, we can only hope that Missouri lawmakers do not look to Texas as an example of voter ID requirements.
Changes to voter ID laws seem imminent all over the U.S. In a country with such rapidly changing demographics and polarized electorates, drafting balanced voter ID legislation will require bipartisan agreement, popular protests and even a few lawsuits. But just as the Founding Fathers did, American leaders will use their political creativity to unite seemingly irreconcilable interests and guarantee that the right of all citizens to cast a ballot remains unabridged.
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