JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Attorneys argued in court Friday over two lawsuits challenging a new Missouri law on voter photo identification and civic engagement rules.
The hearing over how and whether the lawsuits should proceed was held before a judge in Cole County.
The lawsuits, filed by the ACLU of Missouri and the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, target a sweeping law enacted last month that primarily requires voters to show government-issued photo ID at the polls to cast a regular ballot. Voters without proper ID can cast a provisional ballot, which will be counted if they return with valid ID that same day or if their signature is verified by local election officials.
Plaintiffs include the Missouri NAACP and the Missouri League of Women Voters.
Lawyers for Missouri's Attorney General's Office, which is defending the law in court, asked Cole County Presiding Judge Jon Beetem to dismiss the lawsuit on photo ID requirements.
Solicitor General John Sauer said the concern that some voters won't be able to obtain proper identification in order to cast regular ballots amounts to “speculation at its finest.” And he said Boone County and St. Louis County election officials rarely decline to verify voter signatures on provisional ballots.
“They haven’t identified a single voter who can't vote in November,” Sauer told Beetem during the hearing.
Tony Rothert, of the Missouri ACLU, asked for a trial on the case before the upcoming Nov. 8 elections.
He said the photo ID requirement puts unconstitutional burdens on the right to vote and serves no purpose.
“There's still no evidence of voter-impersonation fraud at the polls," Rothert said, referring to the type of fraud the photo ID is intended to prevent.
Republican Missouri lawmakers passed the law in May after a nearly two-decade push for stricter voting requirements to ensure election integrity.
Seventeen states besides Missouri had voter photo identification laws in effect as of this spring, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and 19 states had identification laws that accepted proof other than photos.
A lesser known provision in the Missouri measure bans payment for anyone who works to help register voters and requires those volunteers to be registered Missouri voters themselves. Anyone who helps register more than 10 voters would need to sign up with the Secretary of State’s Office.
The law also bans groups and individuals from “soliciting” voters to request absentee ballots. Violations are punishable by up to five years imprisonment, the loss of the right to vote, and a fine of between $10,000 and $250,000.
The plaintiffs want Beetem to pause that portion of the law as the lawsuit continues.
Campaign Legal Center attorney Danielle Lang said the League of Women Voters of Missouri threw out blank stacks of absentee ballot applications that volunteers had planned to distribute before the law took effect. She said the Missouri NAACP is opting not to talk about absentee voting at all this election cycle over fear of possible prosecution.
“The State of Missouri has made it a felony to approach your neighbor and say, ‘Hey, I would really encourage you to apply to vote absentee,’” Lang said during Friday's court hearing.
Beetem asked that attorneys file proposed orders on the civic engagement lawsuit within the next week. He did not indicate when he might rule on the photo identification requirement.