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Covering state lawmakers, bills, and policy emerging from Jefferson City.

Missouri’s photo-ID voter law challenged in circuit court

Missouri's 2016 law requiring a photo ID to vote is being challenged in Cole County Circuit Court by the progressive group Priorities USA.
File photo | Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon
Missouri's 2016 law requiring a photo ID to vote is being challenged in Cole County Circuit Court by the progressive group Priorities USA.

Proponents of Missouri’s photo-ID voter law argued Monday it’s not burdensome, while those suing to overturn it say it’s exclusionary.

House Bill 1631, which was passed in 2016 and took effect in June of last year, limits the types of photo ID that can be used for voting to non-expired Missouri driver’s licenses, a non-driving state-issued photo ID, a military ID, or a U.S. passport. It also took effect because 63 percent of Missouri voters passed Amendment 6 in November 2016, which allowed for a photo-ID requirement to be passed by the Legislature.

Ryan Bangert, one of three attorneys representing the state during the first day of a lawsuit challenging the law, defended it Monday.

“If a voter lacks one of those types of photo ID, however, they may still cast a regular ballot by presenting a secondary form of ID — including such things as utility bills, paycheck stubs, and many other forms of identification — and signing a simple sworn statement,” he said. “If a voter lacks even that capacity, they may still cast a provisional ballot.”

Credit File photo | Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon
Missouri's 2016 law requiring a photo ID to vote is being challenged in Cole County Circuit Court by the progressive group Priorities USA.

The suit was filed by Priorities USA, a Washington D.C.-based group that bills itself as politically progressive.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Uzoma Nkwonta argued the law is being used as a tool to keep roughly 220,000 Missouri residents from voting.

“For the elderly, the poor, the under-educated, or otherwise disadvantaged, the burden can be great if not insurmountable – and it is those people outside the mainstream of society who are least equipped to bear the cost or navigate the many bureaucracies necessary to comply with this law,” he said. “Plaintiffs have filed this lawsuit because the right to vote belongs to all Missourians, not just the majority who own vehicles or who have the means to navigate these requirements.”

The lead plaintiff in the case is Mildred Gutierrez, 71, of Lee’s Summit. She testified Monday that she was initially barred from voting in a special election last November because her driver’s license had expired. She said she also provided her Social Security card, a utility bill, and a copy of her birth certificate, and was still told she couldn’t vote.

“Then they brought the sworn statement for me to sign,” she testified. “And so I signed it, and I voted.”

But Gutierrez also said she’s concerned she won’t be allowed to vote in future elections, because she has health problems that make it hard for her to sign her name.

“You can’t count on my signature being the same from one day to the next,” she said. “I can recognize my signature, but there’s no way that an ordinary person could look at that and match it.”

Gutierrez eventually obtained a non-driver’s license state photo ID, but had to pay $11 for it, which she said was a financial burden for her.

Another witness testified Monday that the new law represents a financial and logistical burden for low-income Missouri residents. Christine Dragonette, social ministry director for St. Francis Xavier College Church on the campus of Saint Louis University, said one of the services they provide is helping disadvantaged people obtain documents they need for obtaining a valid photo ID and birth certificate.

“Working with people who are homeless or transient, we often see people who do not have a permanent address, so providing proof of address is a difficulty,” Dragonette said. “We also often see people living in poverty or homeless or recently released from prison or jail, and maybe show up without any documents to prove their identity.”

Testimony in the lawsuit is expected to last through Wednesday in Cole County court, and is being heard by Richard Callahan, a semi-retired circuit judge for the county and a former U.S. attorney.

Follow Marshall on Twitter: @MarshallGReport

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St. Louis Public Radio State House Reporter Marshall Griffin is a native of Mississippi and proud alumnus of Ole Miss (welcome to the SEC, Mizzou!). He has been in radio for over 20 years, starting out as a deejay. His big break in news came when the first President Bush ordered the invasion of Panama in 1989. Marshall was working the graveyard shift at a rock station, and began ripping news bulletins off an old AP teletype and reading updates between songs. From there on, his radio career turned toward news reporting and anchoring. In 1999, he became the capital bureau chief for Florida's Radio Networks, and in 2003 he became News Director at WFSU-FM/Florida Public Radio. During his time in Tallahassee he covered seven legislative sessions, Governor Jeb Bush's administration, four hurricanes, the Terri Schiavo saga, and the 2000 presidential recount. Before coming to Missouri, he enjoyed a brief stint in the Blue Ridge Mountains, reporting and anchoring for WWNC-AM in Asheville, North Carolina. Marshall lives in Jefferson City with his wife, Julie, their dogs, Max and Liberty Belle, and their cat, Honey.