By Jeanette Mott Oxford and Denise Lieberman
In a week-long trial that concluded August 23, voter advocates presented testimony before Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem in a case that could determine the fate of Missouri’s voter photo ID law. At stake is Missourians’ fundamental right to vote.
The case, NAACP et al. v. Missouri, was brought more than two years ago on behalf of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP, League of Women Voters of Missouri and Christine Dragonette. It claims Missouri’s latest voter ID law was not sufficiently implemented, causing widespread confusion for voters and poll workers.
“Missouri’s law is confusing. At heart, voter ID requirements are designed to make it harder to vote – particularly for people of color, young voters, workers with low wages, seniors, and voters with disabilities. The effect is magnified when the state fails to uphold its end of the bargain to ensure that voters are informed about the rules,” said attorney Denise Lieberman, Director of Power & Democracy at Advancement Project National Office and coordinator of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition. “Invariably, the state’s failure to do so means the burden falls on the backs of voters.”
In court, lawyers from ACLU National Voting Rights Project, Advancement Project, ACLU of Missouri, and Covington & Burling presented testimony regarding the confusing changes in Missouri’s law. They detailed the state’s failures to sufficiently fund or educate voters about those changes.
“The NAACP has long raised concerns about Missouri’s efforts to implement a voter ID law, and it is one of the reasons we have issued a travel advisory for the state,” said plaintiff Nimrod Chapel, President of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP.
“It is the state’s job to make sure that all eligible voters have access to the ballot,” said Evelyn Maddox, President of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, a plaintiff in the case. “But instead voters have been left to fend for themselves, leading to confusion, especially after the law was changed just weeks before last year’s elections. Missouri should be more responsive to the needs of its voters.”
Missouri’s voter ID law went into effect in 2017, following passage of a voter referendum in 2016, and is the latest in a more than decade-long effort to impose voter ID in Missouri. The law requires the state to notify voters and provides that the voter ID requirements cannot go into effect if the state has failed to fund these mandates.
“Voters were promised that Missouri’s voter ID law was not about disenfranchising the most vulnerable in our state,” said Tony Rothert, Legal Director of the ACLU of Missouri. “The state’s lack of funding and implementation tells another story.”
“This law creates real consequences for voters,” said plaintiff Christine Dragonette, who oversees an ID acquisition program through St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis. “Without adequate information and assistance, the people I work with face real obstacles navigating the process.” Dragonette is also an Empower Missouri leader, active in planning events in the St. Louis region.
Since 2010, at least 15 states have implemented stricter voter identification requirements, including six with strict photo ID requirements. Missouri was one of the first states to pass a strict photo ID requirement in 2006, but that law was struck by the Missouri Supreme Court, which found it violated the right to vote. The 2016 constitutional amendment allowed the current law to be implemented. State records indicate that more than 220,000 registered voters in Missouri lack a current state-issued ID.
“The stakes are high,” Lieberman said. “Without a proactive robust outreach effort, we risk blocking thousands of valid voters from their rightful place in democracy.”
Empower Missouri has long been active in opposing voter ID requirements in Missouri, with the Board of Directors endorsing an official No position on Constitutional Amendment 6 in 2016. We felt certain that the photo ID requirement would disenfranchise many with low incomes, so used organizational resources to educate our advocacy network and the public about reasons to oppose the amendment. We were pleased to provide at least a small measure of support during the trial by opening up our headquarters office, just across the street from the Cole County Court House, to the legal team arguing the case. Our office was a very convenient staging area in which attorneys could meet with witnesses for last minute preparation, make copies, take a coffee break, or have a meal.
The ruling on this case is likely to be issued much later in the fall. Empower Missouri participates in the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition and will keep our network of advocates informed about further developments.
This piece originally ran in our September Newsletter, which you can find aquí.