Missouri voters face host of election law changes

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Chief among them is the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- While voters may no longer need to produce a photo ID to cast a ballot this fall, they will face various other changes in the election process.

A judge recently declared the photo ID requirement an unconstitutional infringement on the right to vote, though an appeal is expected. But his ruling only outlawed the ID requirement portion of a much broader bill, and the other changes in election law remain in effect.

Chief among them is the elimination of straight-ticket voting, an option that allows voters to choose all candidates of one political party in every race on the ballot with a single mark.

Democrats decried the change. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan called it an inconvenience to voters that could mean longer lines at the polls. The Republican-led legislature added that to the bill to punish Senate Democrats who tried to block the ID requirement from coming to a vote this spring.

Conventional wisdom is that Democrats benefit more from straight-ticket voting than Republicans do, but not everyone is convinced. Across Missouri, some areas have more straight Democrat voters while others see a greater share of straight Republican ballots.

Limited figures from Carnahan's office indicate the removal of straight-ticket voting could have a slightly greater impact on Democratic voters than Republicans.

For the 2004 elections, roughly two-thirds of Missouri's local election authorities provided information to the secretary of state's office showing that 594,262 people cast straight Democratic ballots and 497,805 cast straight Republican ballots. The data indicates at least 39 percent of votes cast two years ago statewide came from straight-party ballots.

Marvin Overby, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said removing straight-ticket voting could mean fewer votes are cast in lower-ticket races, with people being bored or uninformed as they go beyond top races such as president, Senate or governor and not completing a full ballot.

But he questioned whether either political party has much to gain on a statewide basis by removing the straight-ticket option.

"You're likely to see fewer people casting votes for those offices at the bottom of the ticket," said Overby, who considers himself a Democrat. "It's not clear to me that that necessarily is going to hurt one party over another."

Supporters argue that voters should be informed and knowledgeable enough to make a choice about individual candidates, not blindly choose a slate based on party label alone.

Seventeen other states allow straight-ticket voting, including neighboring Iowa, Kentucky and Oklahoma, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The measure also prohibits people registering voters from being paid based on the number of names submitted, a tactic some other states also have taken, NCSL said. The law also requires people registering voters to sign up with the secretary of state's office and be registered Missouri voters themselves.

Missouri, and especially St. Louis, has had problems with voter registration.

For example, six people pleaded guilty to involvement in vote fraud in the 2001 St. Louis mayor's election. They admitted to a variety of crimes, including signing the names of friends, relatives, a prison inmate and five dead people on voter registration cards.

Officials discovered hundreds of fraudulent cards before the election, but said no one voted fraudulently.

Late last year, St. Louis election officials also said they received signatures from dead voters and addresses matching vacant lots in a failed petition effort to recall a city alderman.

Another change in the state's election laws affects provisional ballots. Previously, provisional ballots included only statewide and federal races and issues. But with the new law, those ballots must include the full slate of candidates that a regular ballot does.

People can vote a provisional ballot when election authorities can't immediately verify whether they're eligible to vote at a particular polling site. Those ballots are held aside and evaluated later to determine whether the vote should count.

The law also sets up a process for election authorities to move or change an election in case of a natural disaster or terror attack.

The measure also creates penalties for intimidating or preventing people from voting. Such crimes would be the highest level of election offense -- felonies punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: