JEFFERSON CITY — As quick as a camera flash, Republican lawmakers have resurrected a plan to require photo identification for voters. They will press to pass it this week, lest their political opportunity to do so disappears.
With only five days remaining in the 2008 legislative session, Republicans who control the House, Senate and Governor’s Mansion have come to realize that this might be their last, best chance to enact certain parts of their agenda.
There is no guarantee Republicans will maintain their legislative majorities after the November elections. And there is even greater uncertainty about whether they can retain their grasp on the governor’s office.
Should Democrats prevail, the voter photo ID requirement most likely would be dead.
So don’t be surprised if Republicans take a do-or-die approach to enacting an election photo ID requirement before Friday’s mandatory 6 p.m. adjournment.
Senate Republican leaders confirm it’s one of their highest priorities for the final week. It will mark their second attempt to enact the requirement.
In 2006, after Democrats refused to stand down, Republican senators employed a seldom-used motion to shut off debate and pass a photo ID bill on the final day of the session. Republican House members followed suit, and Republican Gov. Matt Blunt signed it into law.
That measure required voters to show a valid government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license, passport or military card. Those lacking photo identification could get a free one from the state.
But the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the photo ID requirement as an unconstitutional “heavy burden” on voting that was not justified by any actual instances of people trying to impersonate others at polling places.
The court declared Missouri’s constitutional entitlement to vote as even stronger than that in the U.S. Constitution. And like a poll tax, the court said, the 2006 law could essentially require some people to pay to vote. To get a copy of a Missouri birth certificate, which is needed to get a free photo ID, it costs $15.
Republicans made little effort to revive their photo ID proposal until an April 29 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a similar photo ID requirement for Indiana voters.
Even then, it seemed too late to take action in Missouri, sponsoring Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, and the 2006 bill sponsor Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, initially said.
But that attitude quickly changed. By Thursday, Cox’s voter ID proposal had cruised through two House committees, two rounds of House votes and moved to the Senate.
Scott plans to pass the voter ID measure Monday out of the Senate elections committee he leads. Then it’s on to the Senate for the final showdown.
The proposed constitutional amendment would ask voters in November to allow laws requiring them to show government-issued photo identification. The amendment is necessary because, under the 2006 Missouri court ruling, a mere law likely won’t suffice.
But Republican legislators aren’t content to wait on the electoral outcome and, if the amendment passes, pursue a subsequent law in 2009. Instead, they want to pass a separate photo ID bill this week that will automatically take effect for the 2010 elections if voters approve the constitutional amendment.
Why the rush?
“I think there’s an assumption that if we got it passed that Blunt would sign the statute,” said Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who decides which measures are brought up for debate.
But “the uncertainty is just not knowing exactly, if we did it in a future legislative session, what Jay Nixon — if he becomes governor — would do,” Shields added.
Nixon, the current attorney general and a Democratic candidate for governor, criticized the photo ID as an “onerous requirement” that would make it harder for Missourians to vote, though he stopped short Friday of pledging to veto the measure.
His potential Republican campaign opponents, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof and Treasurer Sarah Steelman, both support the voter photo ID proposal. Blunt is not seeking re-election.
Republican lawmakers, though publicly expressing confidence in their candidates, might not be willing to wager the photo ID requirement on their gubernatorial prospects.
A team of three Democratic and three Republican senators was to meet Monday to determine the potential for passing a bipartisan photo ID bill. But Senate Minority Leader Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, said Saturday that the prospects for consensus are slim.
If there is none, Republican senators would have to decide if they are again willing to shut off debate and force the measure to passage.
Supportive House members are watching intently.
“Besides the photo ID, I don’t see anything else out there that has that same kind of pressure that ’Hey, we need to get this done, so our governor can sign it, because if it happens to be Nixon, that he may veto it,”’ said House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville.