Rock the Vote? Dance the Vote? How about Confuse the Vote? That’s the situation surrounding Voter ID in Missouri just three weeks before the November 2018 midterm election.
For many years prior to 2017, voter ID in Missouri was relatively straightforward and easy. To vote, you could present any of several different readily available forms of identification, including a Missouri driver’s license, a US passport, a student ID from a Missouri college or university, or something official that included your name and your current address—such as an electric, gas or water bill, or a bank statement, or the voter ID card issued by your local election board. Photo ID was not required.
Then along came photo voter ID mania—the innocent-sounding, voter-suppression gambit foisted upon us by Republican strategists, who disguised it as an anti-fraud measure, which would protect us against supposedly rampant voter impersonation schemes that never existed.
And this year, the voter ID scheme has gone off the rails. Do we need photo ID or don’t we? No one is sure—not even our illustrious Republican Secretary of State, John Ashcroft, Jr. [son of the former US Attorney General and former Missouri Governor John Ashcroft, Sr.].
What’s going on? In a series of warring lawsuits filed this year by voting-rights advocates and the Missouri Secretary of State, the voter ID requirement has come under fire, and has been declared—at various times—both valid and unconstitutional. As of this writing, a Missouri court has ruled that all previously accepted forms of voter ID must be accepted—but that decision is in limbo, because Ashcroft has filed an appeal in the Missouri Supreme Court for a stay of that ruling.
So, we are left with this: Election boards across Missouri don’t know what to tell their pollworkers about acceptable voter ID.
As it stands, according to a training session I attended last night, conducted by a local chapter of The Advancement Project, anyone presenting an appropriate picture ID will be allowed to vote using a regular ballot on November 6. People presenting “secondary” forms of ID—the ones with no photo—will be required to sign an affidavit stating, under penalty of law, that they are who they are—and will then receive a regular ballot. People lacking either the accepted form of photo voter ID or a secondary ID will be given a provisional ballot that will be evaluated later and either accepted or rejected. [Voting rights advocacy groups say that a high percentage of provisional ballots are not counted.]
If the Missouri Supreme court affirms the lower court ruling, the affidavit and the provisional ballot requirements are out. If it stays or overrules the lower court decision, the affidavit and provisional ballot requirements are in.
The net result is the aforementioned confusion. Pollworkers may be unsure about which forms of ID to accept. Election boards—each of which provide their own training to the workers, without a standardized, statewide protocol—may not have time to communicate the most up-to-date ID requirements to the thousands of pollworkers they’re deploying on Election Day. Pollworkers may then have differing perceptions about what’s acceptable, who has to sign an affidavit, who gets a regular ballot and who gets a provisional ballot. And unsuspecting voters may encounter bewildering instructions at their polling places—on an Election Day when the ballot is unusually long and confusing in itself.
Bottom line: Some voters, asked to sign an affidavit, may balk [possibly fearing the legal ramifications of signing an unfamiliar document] and go home without voting. Others may be turned away unfairly by pollworkers who are, themselves, confused about proper procedures.
Here’s what I think: The act of voting should be uncomplicated and routine, because everybody understands what’s required and how it’s done, and because it’s an activity that is organic and valued in a democracy. It shouldn’t be a high-drama situation, fraught with uncertainty. We should err on the side of allowing more people to vote, not fewer. Given the confusion around voting procedures for this election, I’m concerned that some people—even those who vote unimpeded—may begin to doubt the soundness of our voting system and the value of participating in it. And if you don’t trust the vote, what’s left in a democracy? Unfortunately, it appears that confusing the vote, as yet another way of suppressing turnout, is precisely what some people have in mind.