By REBECCA RIVAS
The Missouri Senate passed a wide-ranging elections bill Monday that would enact a photo ID requirement to vote as well as create a window to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse.
The bill will now go back to the House, which can send it to the governor or ask for a conference to work out differences.
After a nine-hour Democratic filibuster last week, Democrats agreed to let the bill come to a vote after adding an amendment to allow for in-person, no-excuse absentee voting during the two weeks before an election at the local election authority office. A move to allow for satellite in-person absentee voting was squashed.
The bill also includes several recommendations — such as prohibiting touchscreen voting machines and requiring a number of cybersecurity checks — that came out of hearings last summer, where legislators heard a parade of debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
“It is in all of our interest to have an election that is as free and fair as possible,” said Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis. “And voting on Election Day with a voter ID, free of outside influence and outside money is really the right move for an election integrity.”
Democrats and voting-rights advocates say the photo ID requirement will negatively impact minorities, seniors, voters with disabilities and many others who struggle with the transportation and funds needed to get an identification card.
Under the bill, sponsored by state Rep. John Simmons, R-Washington, registered voters would either have to get a government-issued photo ID or else only be allowed to cast a provisional ballot on Election Day.
The provisional ballot would be counted only if the voter returns later that day with a photo ID or if election officials can verify their signature based on voter records.
Republicans have been trying to enact a photo ID requirement to vote in Missouri for the last 15 years. Legislation has passed several times, but it’s never been able to fully withstand legal challenges.
Simmons’ seven-page bill grew to more than 80 pages when it was combined with an election bill sponsored by Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, in a Senate committee. Crawford’s bill included a number of cybersecurity and auditing measures.
During the Senate debate on Tuesday, conservative caucus members successfully offered amendments that would require all election authorities or political subdivisions to have cybersecurity reviews. The secretary of the state would be authorized to withhold funds from that election authority if they failed to do so, unless that funding is a federal mandate or part of a federal and state agreement.
“Everyone should have heightened awareness of cybersecurity,” said Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield. “The ability for hackers to do remarkable things…it’s amazing what can be done.”
Funds could also be withheld if the secretary of state finds a local election authority has not properly maintained their voter registration lists or accepts private donations.
Democrats argued against the proposal for several hours, saying that the “far right” wants to give unprecedented power to the secretary of state.
“In the environment that we’re in right now, with unfounded questions surrounding the last election, with a gubernatorial election around the corner, it gives me heartburn to put those types of fiduciary responsibilities into the hands of one person,” said Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City.
A paper ballot state
There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud or irregularities during the 2020 election.
However, during legislative hearings held last summer, several people tested — including Rep. Ann Kelly, a Lamar Republican — that they believed a conspiracy peddled by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell that claims the Chinese were behind President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
Witnesses said they could prove voting machines were hooked up to the internet, which Missouri law already prohibits.
It was these ideas that led to several of the measures in Crawford’s bill, including requiring that all automatic tabulating equipment and electronic voting systems be “air-gapped,” or disconnected from the internet or any network.
Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller, a Republican and former state legislator, has previously said that election equipment is “not in any way connected to the internet.”
All that equipment is certified by the Secretary of State’s Office. They use an encrypted memory stick that’s certified by a bi-partisan election team.
During a Missouri House Elections Committee hearing late last year, Schoeller said the election authorities follow “rigorous auditing” steps after election night to calculate election results.
“We have these safeguards in place,” he said. “I think we all agree, we are going to trust but we are going to verify.”
The conspiracy theories were also behind the measure to ban electronic voting equipment as of Jan. 1, 2023, making the paper ballot the “official ballot.”
But it is already the official ballot, Schoeller tested.
“Missouri is a paper ballot state,” Schoeller said. “We certify elections off of paper. We use electronic equipment on election night in order to be able to put uncertified results out to the public.”
The bill approved on Monday would also do away with Missouri’s presidential primary, which Crawford called nothing but a “beauty contest.”
“It really means nothing, and it costs the state $7 or $8 million,” Crawford said. “By the time we go to caucus later on in the year, many of the people that were on the ballot are no longer even there. And so I honestly think it’s a waste of time.”
The bill relaxes some guidelines for voting absentee in person, but tightens the process for voting absentee from home.
Currently Missourians may vote absentee in advance of an election if they attest under penalty of perjury to being incapacitated or confined due to illness or physical disability, out of town, incarcerated, religious exemptions, or if they’re working at the polls on Election Day .
For those voting from home, the legislation requires that a person be incapacitated or confined due to illness or physical disability “on election day.” And if the reason for voting absentee is due to being primarily responsible for the physical care of a person who is incapacitated or confined due to illness or disability, the person voting would have to live at the same address as the person that is being cared for .
Under current law, in charter counties and the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City, if the election authorities receive 10 or more applications for absentee ballots from the same address, they may appoint a team to deliver and witness the voting and return of absentee ballots by voters residing at that address. The bill would require those teams to be dispatched.
It also bans future use of the mail-in ballots that were used during the pandemic.
However, the bill does allow people to vote at their election authority office without an excuse the two weeks before an election.
“We don’t need people to have to lie to cast a ballot early,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, who sponsored the amendment. “In today’s world, where people are busy and they are running around. They should be able to go vote at a convenient time for them to exercise their constitutional right of voting in an election.”