The story of voter ID laws and how quickly they've spread across the United States can be told through one state's journey. A decade ago, Missouri was one of the first states to require voters to present an ID to vote. But things quickly backfired for voter ID proponents: The state Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, and it was wiped from the books.
A decade later, Missouri Republicans now have a chance to reinstate a voter ID law. The Republican-controlled legislature voted to put the question in the form of a constitutional amendment to voters this November, where proponents expect it to pass and a new law to go on the books as a result.
If it plays out as expected, Missouri will join a totally different voter ID landscape than when it first waded into the issue a decade ago. Voter ID laws have progressed so much over the last decade that if Missouri was once a leader in the voter ID debate, today its reentry will be barely a footnote.
This is the first presidential election in which voters in two-thirds of states will be required to show some form of identification to vote. In 2012, there were 29 states with voter ID laws, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures; in 2016, there will be 33. At least nine states will have strict voter ID laws in place, which essentially means it's harder to vote if you don't have a photo ID.
The stricter voter ID laws, of course, are more controversial and have been challenged in court, with mixed results.
But despite those court challenges and vociferous opposition from liberal thought leaders and civil rights groups, requiring voters to present an ID at the ballot box seems to be on its way to becoming a permanent part of America's electoral landscape. Public opinion, court cases and state laws have all reinforced, to one degree or another, the notion that it's okay to make voter ID a requirement.
And Americans might be okay with that. National polling shows a big majority of Americans support some kind of ID requirement to vote:
The question of voter ID laws' fairness essentially comes down to its intent. Are these laws used to safeguard our democratic process from fraud? Or are they an insidious attempt to disenfranchise one's opponents? (This week, a Republican staffer in the Wisconsin statehouse said state senators were "giddy" about passing a voter ID law that would benefit them politically.)
Voter ID laws became very popular after the 2010 election, which put Republicans in control of statehouses and governors' mansions across the nation. Supporters cited a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that okayed an Indiana photo ID law and went about passing voter ID laws in record numbers. Some of the stricter requirements were knocked down by the courts, but a majority stayed on the books.
Opponents of voter ID laws disagree with the notion that they've lost this battle. They say most of these laws are so egregiously flouting people's right to vote — especially minority and elderly voters who tend to have IDs with less frequency than the rest of America — that there's no way they can stand in court.
"Evidence will only continue to mount and reinforce the disproportionate burdens these place on voters of color," said Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney in Missouri with the Advancement Project, a nonpartisan civil rights organization. "Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court will conclude that voting restrictions that do place burdens on voters of color are unconstitutional." And groups like the Advancement Project think their organization at the state level is slowly but surely helping educate Americans about voter ID laws' harm to minority and Democratic voters.
Their day of reckoning may come sooner rather than later. The Supreme Court could rule before the November election on voter ID requirements in Texas and/or North Carolina that opponents argue are too restrictive and discriminatory.
Opponents hoping for a reversal of their fortunes got a boost this weekend when the author of that 2008 Supreme Court opinion cited so often by Republicans to pass voter ID laws, former liberal justice John Paul Stevens, called his decision upholding Indiana's photo ID law "unfortunate." If he had made his decision based on more research than the plaintiffs presented, it might have changed his decision on voter ID laws, he said.
But it's unclear whether a changed Stevens vote would have changed anything substantial about the direction America is heading with voter ID laws. The ruling still would have been made in favor of Indiana. And today, the federal government is forced into a reactive position on voter ID laws since the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act, limiting its ability to intervene in state voting changes. The Justice Department is launching legal battles across the country to try to knock down the dozens of new voter ID laws, reports The Washington Post's Sari Horowitz.
In Missouri, voter ID proponents are hoping to avoid a similar legal fate. They say the law will be sufficiently worded so as to allow everyone to vote. If you don't have a voter ID, you can still vote on a regular ballot after you sign an affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that you have never bee issued one and you knew it was the law to have one.
"I'm very confident there will not be a single disenfranchised voter," said Missouri state Rep. Justin Alferman (R), who introduced the voter ID law.
If that doesn't pass legal muster, Missouri Republicans are asking voters in November to change the state constitution to allow for the possibility for voter ID laws.
Opponents argue that the fact supporters have to change the constitution at all is an admission that voter ID measures are unconstitutional in Missouri. Proponents say they're simply enforcing a core conservative principle — one that's been proven by 33 other states since they first tried.
If it does pass, Missouri will be an interesting case study in the fast-moving voter ID debate. But it will reinforce this reality: After a decade of trying, voter ID laws may be here to stay, both in Missouri and across the nation.