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Voting lawsuits weigh old and new arguments

With the November election looming, Missouri courts are wrestling with a multipronged attack on a recent overhaul of Missouri’s voting laws.

Late last month, the Missouri branches of the League of Women Voters and the NAACP filed two challenges to House Bill 1878, a major priority of the Republican-led legislature.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a named defendant in both suits, has called the new law a “model for election integrity.”

“This bill makes Missouri elections safer and more transparent, which instills confidence and trust,” he said in a statement shortly after the law was signed.

The suits, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, disagree. One continues a years-long fight over the constitutionality of a law that prods voters to show photo identification at the polls. The other attacks provisions of the new law that it says “chills, restricts, and hobbles” their voter outreach efforts.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has not formally responded to the suits, but it has asked that they be consolidated in Cole County Circuit Court. Ultimately, they are likely to land before the Missouri Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has twice addressed voter ID laws. In 2006, the court in Weinschenk v. State struck down a law passed that year that attempted to require photo ID for voting.

Ten years later, a revised law that attempted to address some of the earlier law’s shortcomings. Among other things, it allowed voters who lacked a photo ID to present a utility statement or student ID or similar document, so long as they signed an affidavit.

In 2020, the high court in Priorities USA v. State of Missouri said the wording of the affidavit was “misleading and contradictory.” As a result, voters in several Missouri elections have effectively been able to choose from a wide range of documents to prove their identity.

This year’s law removes the option of using those non-photo IDs. Instead, those who can’t produce a driver’s license or similar ID must either return to the polling place later in the day with such an ID in hand, or they can cast a provisional ballot to be verified by checking their signature against one on file.

The suit alleges that those “restrictions substantially and severely burden the fundamental right to vote” and that the signature-matching process is “entirely subjective, standardless, unreliable, and arbitrary” and could result in the rejection of many ballots.

To some degree, the Supreme Court already has had this fight. In the 2020 ruling, the dissenting judges suggested the court could have struck down part of the statute that permitted non-photo ID voting altogether. The majority in 2020 shot down that proposal, writing at the time that such an outcome “could not have been adopted by this Court.”

The lawsuit argues that Missouri’s new law would effectively “implement a scheme that Missouri Supreme Court refused to accept” in its earlier cases.

Meanwhile, a separate suit challenges four other provisions of HB 1878 that strike into new territory. The provisions would prohibit paying people for soliciting voter registration applications; requiring anyone who seeks to sign up more than 10 voters to register with the state; requiring those registered solicitors to be registered Missouri voters; and forbidding solicitation of absentee ballot applications.

“While the restrictions’ vague language prevents Plaintiffs from understanding the precise scope of covered speech and activities, Plaintiffs reasonably fear that HB 1878 criminalizes many of their current basic voter outreach efforts,” the suit alleges.

The cases are Missouri State Conference of the NAACP v. State of Missouri, 22AC-CC04439 and League of Women Voters of Missouri v. State of Missouri, 22AC-CC04333.