Photo voter ID could be enshrined as a constitutional amendment in Missouri

Although it has been struck down more than once, photo voter ID just won’t die in Missouri, and this year, Republican legislators want to put the issue on the November 2014 ballot—to create an amendment to the Missouri constitution that would require voters to show photo ID in order to vote.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Voters decide on state issues via ballot initiatives all the time, don’t they?  First, a bit of history:

In 2006, Missouri Republican lawmakers passed a voter ID bill that was later struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court. The court said the law amounted to a “heavy and substantial burden on Missourians’ free exercise of the right of suffrage.”

According to the Kansas City Star:

In response to the court’s ruling, lawmakers passed a proposed constitutional amendment allowing a photo ID requirement to vote. They also passed a companion bill that laid out the guidelines for implementing a photo ID law, should voters approve it.

Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the implementation bill.

Then, in 2012, they tried again. But a judge in Missouri’s Cole County struck down a proposed statewide vote on a similar constitutional amendment, ruling that the summary that would have appeared on the ballot was “insufficient and unfair” and pointed to two reasons for her ruling:

First, the ballot summary includes the phrase “Voter Protection Act,” even though the phrase never actually appears in the constitutional amendment.

Second, the summary stated that the amendment would allow the General Assembly to establish an early voting period, when in fact the amendment would “restrict the time period during which advance voting may occur,” [the judge] said.

Even given that history, Missouri Republicans are not willing to admit that they’re promoting a bad idea. Instead, they’re going all out: They’re taking an aggressive, two-pronged approach. Part A is getting the constitutional amendment on the November ballot and getting it passed in a statewide vote. Part B is a piece of enabling legislation, detailing the requirement for photo ID. The second bill would go into effect only if Missouri voters pass the constitutional amendment.

Depending on the wording on the ballot, what voters would be deciding on could be a non-specific, conceptual amendment—not something that spells out how photo voter ID would be implemented. The specifics would come later, in the enabling legislation that fills in the blanks. As it stands now, the enabling bill requires voters to present  state or federal government-issued photo identification. It would allow military IDs but not student IDs. But those requirements could change once the constitutional amendment is enshrined.

So, unless they are extremely well-informed, Missourians would essentially be voting on the proverbial pig in a poke. —and not just an easily rescinded law—a set-in-stone constitutional amendment that would be much harder to walk back. Undoing the damage would require another state-wide vote to overturn the amendment. 

The two bills have already passed in the Missouri House this year, and people who handicap these things say that there’s a good chance that they will move ahead in the Missouri Senate. MSNBC explains the odds this way:

In Missouri, the constitutional amendment would appear to have a decent shot at the polls, especially in a low turnout midterm election with no high-profile races on the ballot, a scenario that tends to favor Republicans and conservative causes. Despite the controversy over voter ID, it generally polls well, likely because most people overestimate the prevalence of in-person fraud and underestimate the number of people who lack ID.

It’s anybody’s guess whether Democrat Jay Nixon would veto the bills—but his veto could be meaningless, as Republicans have a veto-proof majority in the Missouri House and are just one vote away in the Senate.

This cockeyed notion of how to get your way when your way has been rejected—again and again—is another example of Missouri legislators resurrecting issues that—by virtue of court rulings or legislative defeat—have proven to be unpopular, unworkable, undemocratic [with a small “d”], or just plain unconstitutional and/or illegal. See also: nullification of federal gun laws. That’s back on the legislative agenda, too, in 2014, even though it failed a veto-override in 2013.

When I first came to Missouri, about 40 years ago, the state legislature met for six months every other year. There’s something to be said for that: Less time in session means fewer opportunities to do damage.