State Supreme Court hears election issues

Thursday, October 5, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:07 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY ­­— The Missouri Supreme Court had an unusual “show and tell” from the bench Wednesday. Retired Supreme Court Judge Charles Blackmar held up his expired drivers license in court asking attorneys if it would be sufficient documentation to vote if the court ruled the new voter ID law to be constitutional.

“I don’t drive, I have a driver’s license, and it’s got a pretty good mug shot,” said Blackmar, who was sitting in for Judge William Price Jr. “Most people would recognize it as me from this, but since I don’t drive, I didn’t see any reason to renew my drivers license. Although this would seem to identify me pretty well, this wouldn’t qualify, would it? This wouldn’t qualify as a proper photo ID.”

The 84-year-old would be exempt under the law that would require voters to show a government-issued ID at the polls because he was born before 1941. Residents who have religious objections or a disability are also exempt from the requirement.

Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan declared the law unconstitutional last month, saying it could infringe on Missourians’ right to vote. The law was signed by the governor in June.

The judges focused on the cost associated with obtaining the accepted identification the law would require. The cost of obtaining a birth certificate in Missouri — one of the documents a resident can show to receive a driver’s license or state identification card — is $15.

“This is only three percent of Missourians or four percent depending on whose numbers you look at that don’t already possess (the necessary documentation),” said attorney Thor Hearne, who represents the law’s sponsor Sen. Delbert Scott, R—Lowry City.

Voters without proper identification would still be allowed to vote but would cast a provisional ballot that would be counted after the signature is checked against election records for validity.

But attorney Don Downing said provisional ballots are not available in all elections.

“Provisional ballots are not the same as regular ballots,” Downing said. “There are six separate requirements that have met before you can count a provisional ballot.”

Downing continued to attack the idea of having signatures compared, saying local election authorities are not signatures experts.

For the November 2004 election, 8,000 provisional ballots were submitted and 3,000 were counted, said attorney Barbara Wood, who represents the Secretary of State’s office.

In his ruling last month, Callahan also said the identification requirement created an additional qualification on voting that is not included in the Constitution.

But Hearne argued Wednesday that the legislature did not add more qualifications.

“What they have simply said is this is the means by which somebody has satisfied these qualifications,” Hearne said.

After the arguments on the voter ID law, the court heard arguments on whether the tobacco tax initiative should remain on the ballot.

A lower court judge ruled the measure should be placed on the ballot last month after Secretary of State Robin Carnahan decided the petition fell short of the number of signatures required to be placed on the ballot.

The ballot initiative would increase the state’s tobacco tax from 17 cents per pack to 97 cents, and is estimated to generate $351 million annually. The money would fund health care and anti-smoking programs.

In August, Carnahan decided the measure fell 274 signatures short of the required 23,527 needed from the Kansas City area. The lower court judge overturned that decision, ruling that local election officials failed to validate more than 1,000 signatures — giving the measure the required signatures to be placed on the ballot.

Marc Ellinger, attorney for the Missourians Against Tax Abuse, called the petition process for the ballot “chaotic.”

“Chaotic procedures under which the current petition was circulated shows really the problem we have in the state of Missouri with initiatives in general,” Ellinger said.

Last week three top lawmakers submitted a friend of the court brief in opposition to the tax increase. House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, and Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, joined together to oppose the ballot measure because it requires the state to provide Medicaid coverage to everyone at 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level.

Opponents argue Medicaid coverage at that poverty level would require the legislature to use other tax revenue — not just revenue generated from the tobacco tax fund.

“This proposed initiative petition is going to take existing state revenues, lock them up and prohibit the legislature from being able to spend them according the Constitution,” Ellinger said. “That’s expressly prohibited by the Constitution and as result the amendment should not even get on the ballot.”

Chuck Hatfield, attorney for the Committee for a Healthy Future, a group that supports the ballot measure, said the opponents are being driven by the tobacco companies.

“We understand that the big tobacco companies don’t want to see this on the ballot,” he said. “We understand there are a lot of things people are willing to say to keep it off the ballot, but they are just not true.”

In regard to the ballot measure possibly being unconstitutional, Hatfield said: “We are creating money by taxing cigarettes and we are going to use it for specific programs that people want to see control smoking, particularly among younger people, and providing health care.”

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