Fight over voter ID more politics than policy spat

Monday, March 20, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Legislation requiring voters to show a photo ID to cast a ballot is being hailed as a priority by Republicans -- and vilified as a hassle by Democrats.

But, as frequently happens in the Capitol, the problem it's trying to address -- and the harm it could cause -- may be exaggerated. And the strident support or opposition from both sides may have a lot more to do with politics than policy.

Lawmakers worked late into the night last week on the bill that would require voters to show a government-issued photo identification at the polls. Republicans say it's necessary to ensure people have confidence in the election system.

"That prevents dogs from voting; that prevents dead people from voting," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Delbert Scott of Lowry City.

St. Louis in particular has been plagued with voting problems over the years. In 2001, investigators turned up thousands of fraudulent registration cards, including cards for a dog and a dead alderman.

During Senate debate on the bill, Democrats offered their own hypothetical scenarios -- including how to hold a proper election after a natural disaster like a volcano eruption (an unlikely occurrence in Missouri) or how to accommodate someone whose wallet was stolen the night before Election Day.

Democrats say the requirement is a burden that will discourage tens of thousands of people from voting -- especially the poor, elderly and disabled who don't have a driver's license.

In reality, both sides' scare tactics are likely exaggerated.

The secretary of state's office estimated that 170,000 to 190,000 people of voting age lack a license or state ID card. But not all of those people would vote anyway. Less than 63 percent of the state's voting age population cast a vote for president in 2004, and far less turn out in off years like this one.

Also, as a good share of those without a license are elderly, the bill would send a mobile ID card center to nursing homes and senior centers to make it easy for seniors to get a card for free.

It seems possible that both sides are concerned about protecting their political base.

After hours of Democrats talking to stall a vote on the bill and warnings of what a hardship requiring a photo ID would cause, it appeared a compromise was near. Democrats were suddenly agreeable to requiring a photo ID -- if Republicans would put off the change until at least 2008.

Democrats said the state and voters need time to learn of and prepare for the new requirements. But Republicans insist the changes must take effect for the November election, saying fraud must be stopped as soon as possible.

What's so important about this fall? Both parties are expected to spend serious time and money on the U.S. Senate race, where Republican incumbent Jim Talent faces a strong challenge from State Auditor Claire McCaskill.

Democrats dubbed the bill the "Talent Protection Act," saying the new requirements will keep the poor, elderly and disabled away from the polls -- groups they presume lean Democratic.

"This is basically just to repress voting, not to protect voting," said Sen. Pat Dougherty, a St. Louis Democrat.

As is often the case at the Capitol, whether an idea is good state policy may be the talk on the House or Senate floor, but the undercurrent of politics flows just beneath the surface.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Newswoman Kelly Wiese covers state government and politics for The Associated Press.

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