Democracy and Elections

Proof of Citizenship? Missouri Vies for the Worst Voting Law in the Country

Missouri lawmakers are rushing to pass a law that would, among other things, deny some nuns the right to vote.
Missouri's Republican-controlled legislature is rushing to pass one of the country's most draconian voter ID requirements less than two weeks after the Supreme Court upheld Indiana's similarly restrictive photo ID law -- a law that's best known for serving as a vital bulwark against nuns voting. Missouri trumps that: It now seems that the state that brought us the likes of GOP anti-voting fraud zealot "Thor" Hearne and became "Ground Zero" for GOP vote suppression schemes in 2006 could take the brass ring from Florida and Ohio as the state most hostile to its own voters' rights.

There's a good reason that the Republicans are moving so quicklyto pass a proposed constitutional amendment that could thwart at least 240,000 Missouricitizens from voting in November. The state is a presidential battleground state where recent gubernatorial and Senate races have been decided by margins as little as 21,000 votes.

"If you exclude 240,000 people from the electorate, that is plenty to swing the election in Missouri," says John Hickey, the executive director of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition (ProVote). He and other advocates are urging Missouri residents to contact their legislators to protest.

Last week, the House passed a resolution on a strict party-line vote that would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot demanding documentary requirements to vote. It is now up for debate in the state Senate and could go before voters as early as August. An amendment to the state constitution is necessary since the legislature's 2006 voter ID was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The vaguely-worded amendment will, if approved by voters, permit the legislature to enact laws requiring documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote and current photo ID to cast a ballot. By blocking tens of thousands of U.S. citizens from either registering or voting, Missouri's pending bill could become, if passed, the toughest law in the country. Only five states require voters to show government-issued photo ID to vote and just one state -- Arizona -- requires would-be voters to prove their citizenship, according to research by Project Vote.

The resolution's sponsor, State Rep.Stanley Cox, is peddling the claim that this demand for photo ID was "not taking away rights."

"When anybody fraudulently votes, it diminishes all of our votes," he said last week when the resolution passed the state House. But there hasn't been a single proven case of voter impersonation at the polls in the state's history. And based on the experience of Arizona, between seven and 30 percent of citizens lack the citizenship documentation needed to register to vote.

But protecting voters from fraud isn't the real goal of this measure -- it's just helping GOP officials hold on to political power by blocking Democratic-leaning voters, critics say. "Their spin is that the elections are overrun with fraud," says the non-partisan Missouri ACORN's legislative director, Julie Terbrock. "But this measure effectively disenfranchises all these voters," she says, citing the Secretary of State's report on citizens without ID.

At a fair-election coalitionpress conference at the League of Women Voters' headquarters in Jefferson City, a few nuns came forward to express their concerns that the Catholic sisters in their convents lack the required ID. In fact, before the news conference, Sister Sandy Schwartz of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in St. Louis reported the results of an informal survey of nuns in her order. "Fifteen [of 35 voters] did not have state-issued photo IDs," she observed. "This may sound like a good idea at first, but once you stop to think about who would really be affected, this is going to keep a lot of our loved ones from being able to vote."

The strict documentary requirements can be hard for Missouri nuns and other senior citizens, even married women of all ages, in obtaining their birth certificates. A survey by NYU's Brennan Center for Justice found that 52 percent of married woman don't have a birth certificate in their current name, and 17 percent of citizens age 65 and over don't have access to any citizenship documents.

At the press conference, Lillie Lewis, an elderly African-American woman, told how she struggled to get a birth certificate in order to secure a state-issued photo ID under the state's rigid "Show Me Proof" law passed in 2005. "I have tried everything to get a copy of my birth certificate," Lewis said, "but Mississippi says they have no record of my birth." So she likely won't be able to obtain a new driver's license, and, as a result, she declared, "My right to vote will be denied."

She was joined at the press conference by the Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who strongly opposed the previous photo ID law. "As Missouri's chief elections official, it's my job to ensure fair elections, and elections cannot be fair if eligible voters are not allowed to vote," said Carnahan. "What we heard today is that getting copies [of the documents needed to obtain a government ID] can be costly, time consuming and sometimes impossible."

The harsh reality of disenfranchisement has already been felt in Arizona, with its sweeping proof-of-citizenship registration requirement passed as part of the anti-immigrant Proposition 200referendum in 2004. According to Arizona ACORN's Monica Sanschafer, who is heading up an effort to help 20,000 Arizonans register to vote, they have seen the effectiveness of their voter registration efforts cut in half because between 10 percent and 30 percent of low-income and minority citizens don't have the documents needed to register. The law, which has led to more than 38,000 voter registration applications being rejected, is now being challenged in court.

On top of all that, confusing ID requirements and poorly trained poll workers lead to countless voters being turned away: "It's a crapshoot which polling place workers will allow you to vote," notes Linda Brown of the Arizona Advocacy Network.

"All the discourse here is about immigration," Sandschafer observes. "But we're really talking about Arizonans who are Americans and whose legal right to vote is being denied. And while Latino citizens are hit hard, we're finding that all Arizonans are at risk of being disenfranchised by this requirement."

Perhaps no one knows that as well as 97-year-old Shirley Freeda Preiss. She was born at home in Clinton, Kentucky in 1910, before women had the right to vote, and never had a birth certificate. Shirley has voted in every presidential election since FDR first ran in 1932, and proudly describes herself as a "died-in-the-wool Democrat." After living in Arizona for two years, she was eagerly looking forward to casting her ballot in the February primary for the first major woman candidate for President, Hillary Clinton. But lacking a birth certificate or even elementary school records to prove she's a native-born American citizen, the state of Arizona's bureaucrats determined that this former school-teacher who taught generations of Americans shouldn't be allowed to vote.

"I have a constitutional right to vote, don't I?" she asks with her soft Southern drawl. "I didn't get to vote because of a birth certificate. What am I going to do now?"

Her strong-willed 78-year-old son, Nathan "Joey" Nemnich, a World War II veteran, is infuriated. "I'm pissed. She's an American citizen who worked her whole life and I want her to vote," he says. He went down to the local Motor Vehicle Division to get her an Arizona ID and register her to vote, armed with copies of his mother's three drivers' licenses from her previous home in Texas, along with copies of her Social Security and Medicare cards. All that wasn't good enough for the state of Arizona. "The sons of bitches are taking away our Constitution," Nemnich says.

In Arizona and now as seems likely in Missouri, Kafkaesque rules blend with right-wing ideology to block American citizens like Shirley Preiss from voting, collateral damage in the Republican-led war on democracy. "I was very disappointed," she says of the state's roadblocks to voting. "It's not acceptable. I've always voted."
Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, and a Fellow with the Progressive Policy Insititute. He has also written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate, Salon and numerous other publications.