I don’t get all that many invitations, so when I was urged to attend the Constitution Day colloquy Wednesday night sponsored by the League of Women Voters, I went happily.
The League likes to stay a step ahead. On the agenda was a proposed amendment to our state constitution that won’t be on the ballot until November 2012. Constitution Day itself is actually Saturday, the 224th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. But never mind.
The amendment, approved by the legislature earlier this year, would set new and tougher identification rules for prospective voters while also allowing more voting in advance of election days.
The new identification requirements — usually referred to by the misleading shorthand of “photo ID” — are the controversial section. They’re so controversial, in fact, that they’ve already been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. That’s why advocates are now pushing to amend the constitution itself.
Discussants were Prof. Justin Dyer, a young political scientist starting his third year on the MU faculty, and Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren, who has earned a national reputation while supervising elections here and abroad for nearly 30 years.
Their presentations were expert and nonpartisan. They enumerated pros and cons, identified winners and losers and left me pretty well convinced that we’re confronting another Republican-backed effort to disenfranchise voters most likely to be Democrats. Both speakers expect the amendment to be approved by a naïve electorate (my description, not theirs).
Prof. Dyer traced the history of the slow and painful extension of effective voting rights and outlined the arguments for and against tightened requirements.
The argument for is, of course, that more stringent identification reduces voter fraud and so protects the integrity of the democratic process. The counter is that the would-be voters most likely to be without the prescribed photo IDs tend to be the old, the poor, the minorities and students — all typically inclined to vote Democratic when they vote at all.
Ms. Noren injected wry reality. The truth is, she said, that “there hasn’t been rampant fraud” in Missouri since the days of the long-disappeared big city machines. Attempted fraud is much more likely in voter registration, which isn’t affected by the proposed rules.
She also noted that it’s impossible to remove politics from the making of election laws. The epic Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, helped Democrats by making voters of previously excluded minorities, especially southern blacks.
She added, “People say it’s political. Well, we have a political system. Should we throw that out?” Clearly, she doesn’t think we should.
The “voter fraud” most often cited by Republicans, such as the Acorn abuses in St. Louis and elsewhere, was actually discovered before any voting took place, she pointed out. The root cause of that, which the proposed amendment doesn’t address, was the business model of paying people to collect new registrants rather than any political ideology.
Because the new identification requirements rule out some that’s now accepted (such as university-issued student ID and out-of-state driver licenses), a significant segment of Boone County voters stand to be affected.
Ms. Noren guessed that as many as 1,500 students will be turned away at the first presidential election after the new rules take effect.
And by the way, enforcement of the new rules will cost millions. In Indiana, where something similar was approved in 2007, the price so far has totaled more than $10 million. The Missouri law overturned by the court was estimated to cost $7 million in its first year.
To review, then: We’ll be voting on a set of changes that purport to address a nonexistent problem while leaving real weaknesses untouched. We’ll make it harder to vote for people who already are less likely to do so. All that at a cost of millions we don’t have.
Looks like a slam dunk to me.