Missouri’s Strict Voter ID Requirement Heads To Trial

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Trial begins today in a state-level lawsuit out of Missouri that challenges the state’s recently enacted strict photo ID voting requirement. 

In June 2022, Missouri Republicans passed an omnibus voter suppression law that rolled back progress Missouri had made on voting rights. The legislation attacked voting machines, election administration and civic engagement organizations, banned drop boxes and — at issue in today’s trial — created a strict photo ID requirement for both in-person and in-person absentee voting. 

Previously, Missouri voters had a swath of options to prove their identity. Voters could not only rely on traditional forms of government issued IDs, like a driver’s license or  passport, but they could also utilize secondary IDs, including student IDs, voter registration cards, a copy of utility bills or bank statements.

Since last year’s law went into effect, Missourians are now limited only to an unexpired government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot. If voters lack the proper form of ID, their only remaining choice is to cast a provisional ballot that won’t necessarily be counted unless they manage to present a valid ID within the same day, or if their ballot signature is matched with a signature already on file — an error-prone process ripe for over-rejection.

In August 2022, the League of Women Voters of Missouri (LWVMO), Missouri NAACP and two voters burdened by the restrictions filed a lawsuit against the state of Missouri and Missouri Secretary of State John Ashcroft (R) challenging the law. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in October 2022, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring their claims.

On Nov. 4, 2022, the same plaintiffs and an additional burdened voter filed an amended complaint challenging the law and alleging that the photo ID restrictions violate the fundamental right to vote under the Equal Protection Clause of the Missouri Constitution. In their new filing, they request that the restrictions be deemed unconstitutional and no longer applicable in future elections.

By eliminating the option of providing a secondary ID to vote and imposing the new burdensome restrictions, the Republican-led Legislature forces those without an acceptable form of photo ID to spend time, resources and effort “navigating bureaucracies” to obtain the documentation needed to vote — an effort that can prove “insurmountable and impossible” for some and one that substantially and severely burdens the fundamental right to vote, according to the plaintiffs.

The effects of the strict photo ID requirement disproportionately harm young and marginalized voters. 

Hundreds of thousands of Missourians are impacted by the restrictions, the plaintiffs argue, pointing in part to an analysis requested by Ashcroft himself that found that more than 277,000 registered voters lacked a valid Department of Revenue ID (e.g. a driver’s license or instruction permit).

Strict photo ID laws are especially burdensome for minority and low income communities, a fact highlighted in the lawsuit by a study showing the laws have a “differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks and mixed-race Americans.”

Young voters are also disproportionately impacted. Last year, a student at Washington University in St. Louis explained to Democracy Docket how Missouri’s new law imposed new barriers to college students seeking to vote in the state, saying that he knew “from working at the polling place on campus on Election Day last week, [that there were] a whole host of folks who chose to vote provisionally because they didn’t have an ID that met the new requirements.” 

According to the lawsuit, the state’s backup identification options for voting are not easily accessible or fair. 

Although Missouri provides voters with free non-driver’s licenses that could be used to vote along with the underlying documents needed to obtain the ID, the plaintiffs argue that this assistance fails to alleviate the burden caused by the significant time and effort required to navigate the process. Additionally, because the free ID for voting is a one-time opportunity, a voter whose state-provided ID expires, is lost or destroyed would not be eligible for a new one for free — even if the lack of ID is not their fault, for example, in the case of a flood or fire.

The plaintiffs similarly warn about the option of voting via the signature matching process — one that lacks formalized state standards and procedures — describing it as “arbitrary, standardless and unreliable,” and arguing that factors such as age, health, emotional factors — such as anger fatigue — and writing conditions can all contribute to the erroneous rejection of legitimate ballots.

Additionally, the lawsuit claims that civic organizations that assist Missourians in voting, like the Missouri NAACP and the LWVMO, must now divert resources to clear up confusion created by the law and assist voters in the complex and costly process of obtaining the requisite documents.

Today’s trial could strike down a burdensome photo ID law in Missouri for the third time since the turn of the century.

The 2022 law being challenged is yet another effort by Missouri Republicans to impose strict ID requirements for voting — the Missouri Supreme Court has struck down the General Assembly’s two previous attempts. 

The lawsuit before the court today rests heavily on these two previous decisions. A law passed more than a decade earlier similarly mandated that Missourians present limited forms of government-issued photo ID in order to vote. The requirements were blocked, with the Missouri Supreme Court ruling that the law violated the fundamental right to vote and the right to equal protection enshrined in the state constitution. 

In the 2006 decision, the court highlighted the costs incurred by voters to seek the acceptable forms of ID, a finding that the plaintiffs in today’s case argue once again exists as a result of last year’s voter suppression law.

The plaintiffs also note that a pared down version of this legislation was later passed by the state Assembly in 2016, but even that was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court. The law retained the photo ID requirements, but allowed voters who lacked acceptable ID to vote with a secondary form of ID so long as they signed an affidavit confirming their identity and other facts. 

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that this requirement also violated the state constitution, describing the law as “misleading and contradictory.” In the same ruling, the court allowed the secondary ID options to remain in place — until they were removed as part of the most recent 2022 law, House Bill 1878.

The lawsuit alleges that H.B. 1878’s photo ID requirements are no different from the previous rules that the Missouri Supreme Court twice struck down for being unconstitutionally burdensome. Like the old laws, the newly challenged law suffers from the “same infirmities,” the plaintiffs argue. 

Republicans have fought with the pro-voting parties over whether they have the right to bring the case.

In defending the law, among other claims, the Missouri Republican defendants allege that the plaintiffs lack standing to bring the case because no sufficient injury (burden) exists given that Missouri residents can technically vote by provisional ballot if they lack a required form of photo ID. In response, the plaintiffs argue that doing so is an extremely difficult and unfair process — and one that violates the state constitution.

And even if a voter is able to attempt to cast a vote by provisional ballot, a former Missouri secretary of state has said the process is not an acceptable substitute for voters given the fact that they are so rarely counted. A study cited by the plaintiffs found that in the 2012 presidential election, fewer than 30% of provisional ballots were counted.

ID requirements for voting have only emerged since the turn of the century. Despite the fact that elections were consistently conducted in a safe and efficient manner, Republicans in recent years have ramped up attacks on voting rights by implementing strict, needless ID restrictions on the heels of false claims of widespread voter fraud.

Lawsuits similar to the one going to trial today are actively challenging suppressive voting laws in Idaho, Ohio and North Carolina, among other states. 

Trial in the case is slated to end on Nov. 22. It is unclear when a decision will be made.

Learn more about the case here.

Read about Missouri’s voter suppression law here.

Learn more about how ID requirements can burden voters here.