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Missouri's Long Fight Over Voting Rules Is Now Part Of A Larger National Battle

A crowd attends a rally as part of the 2021 Missouri Voting Rights Lobby Day at the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo., on March 31. The Republican-led House approved a bill that would impose strict photo ID and other requirements on voting.
A crowd attends a rally as part of the 2021 Missouri Voting Rights Lobby Day at the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo., on March 31. The Republican-led House approved a bill that would impose strict photo ID and other requirements on voting.

The same day last month that Georgia's legislature passed a controversial new voting bill, Missouri's Republican-led House approved one of its own. It would impose strict photo ID and other requirements on voting.

Both bills are part of a wave of measures proposed across the country after the 2020 elections, and reflect a deep partisan divide over who has access to the polls and how. The divide is not new, but the sides have become increasingly entrenched.

An attendee holds a sign that reads "No more Jim Crow!" during a voter rights rally at the Missouri State Capitol.
/ Jacob Moscovitch for NPR
An attendee holds a sign that reads "No more Jim Crow!" during a voter rights rally at the Missouri State Capitol.

Voting rights activists who gathered recently on the steps of the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City know they're part of a much bigger struggle. They represent groups — the NAACP, the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, Black faith organizations and others — that are fighting restrictive voting laws across the country.

"We are here today to say 'no.' No to voter suppression. No to photo ID. And no to efforts to silence the voices of Missouri's voters any longer," called out Denise Lieberman, who runs the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.

The group was formed 15 years ago when Missouri was one of the first states that tried to enact strict voter ID requirements. The Missouri effort has been tangled in legal challenges ever since. Republicans now want to strike a provision that gives voters the option of using a non-photo ID, after a court struck down the most recent version.

This long battle has assumed a new sense of urgency, after unprecedented challenges to the results of last year's elections. Democrats, and especially voters of color, say bills being pushed in Missouri and in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan and elsewhere are part of a broad assault on democracy. They note Missouri Republicans are also trying to impose new limits on ballot initiatives and street protests.

The Rev. Darryl Gray is the chair of the social justice commission for the Missionary State Baptist Convention of Missouri and part of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.
/ Jacob Moscovitch for NPR
The Rev. Darryl Gray is the chair of the social justice commission for the Missionary State Baptist Convention of Missouri and part of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.

The Rev. Darryl Gray, a coalition member, sees the GOP effort as a direct response to recent Democratic success at the polls, with the help of Black and brown voters.

"It is deliberate. It is strategic. And it's all about securing and maintaining political power," he said, before leading the crowd of about 30 activists in a chant. "No more Jim Crow! No more Jim Crow!" they shouted before entering the Capitol.

Inside, the partisan split was on clear display. Democrats were the ones wearing masks; Republicans did not. And while the protesters were outside chanting, Republicans were hearing from gun rights activists in the Rotunda. They included Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the armed St. Louis couple who were criminally charged after they confronted Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home last year.

For the voting rights activists, the GOP embrace of the McCloskeys is another sign that lawmakers in Missouri are intent on silencing their voices.

Republicans insist nothing could be further from the truth, that they only want to make common sense improvements in election law.

"I've been called racist and Nazi and everything else, and it is just totally false," said Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch. She's the author of a provision in the House-passed voting bill that would give the secretary of state power to clean up the voter rolls, which opponents fear could lead to aggressive purges.

Members of the Missouri State House vote on March 31 in Jefferson City, Mo. The divide over voting rights is not new, but the sides have become increasingly entrenched.
/ Jacob Moscovitch for NPR
Members of the Missouri State House vote on March 31 in Jefferson City, Mo. The divide over voting rights is not new, but the sides have become increasingly entrenched.

Reisch says she's trying to shore up the system so voters are confident it's safe from fraud. She's been on a 40-year crusade to remove from registration lists the names of those who've moved or died.

"I save obituaries," she said, holding up the latest pile of clippings. "I take a copy box, I put the obituary page in it, and then come back to it in about six months. Maybe 12 months. Pull it out. Check online and see if they're still registered to vote or not."

She says often they are. When asked if any of these dead people have ever voted, Reisch gives the answer repeated by Republicans across the country: "I can't answer that question, because it's an unknown," she said. "It's rare that they would get caught if they're dead." Reisch said even one fraudulent vote is one too many.

Republican state Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch says she's trying to shore up the system so voters are confident it's safe from fraud. Reisch said even one fraudulent vote is one too many.
Pam Fessler / NPR
Republican state Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch says she's trying to shore up the system so voters are confident it's safe from fraud. Reisch said even one fraudulent vote is one too many.

Down the hall, her Republican colleague John Simmons sat in a small office with a large American flag covering one of its walls. Simmons, the main sponsor of the voter ID bill, insists that he's trying to protect, not restrict, the rights of legitimate voters. He noted that the state helps people get the required photo ID and has other options for those who don't have them. Simmons said no eligible voter is blocked from the polls.

"It's actually a completely false narrative," he said of Democrats' claims. "I'm really not sure why they keep promoting that. I think they're still trying to scare people that are in their voting bloc because there's actually been studies [showing] turnout is actually increased in that group of population, the minority group, the urban group."

And it's true. Black voter turnout has gone up in recent elections, but advocacy groups say it could be even higher without the barriers.

Republican state Rep. John Simmons is the main sponsor of the voter ID bill. He insists he's trying to protect the rights of legitimate voters, not to restrict them.
/ Jacob Moscovitch for NPR
Republican state Rep. John Simmons is the main sponsor of the voter ID bill. He insists he's trying to protect the rights of legitimate voters, not to restrict them.

These bills will likely pass in Missouri, as in other Republican-controlled states. They'll just as likely be challenged in court.

GOP lawmakers say they're bolstered by the support of their constituents. Indeed, polls have shown a majority of Republicans have absorbed former President Donald Trump's repeated lies that the election was stolen through widespread fraud. At the very least, many have their doubts.

Outside the St. Louis elections office, where voters went to cast absentee ballots in a local mayoral race, several residents called what's happening at the state Capitol a Republican power grab. But others, like Dan Schulte, think lawmakers are justified. He says, rightly or wrongly, it seems like there was some fraud in the 2020 elections because of the many last-minute rules changes, like the expansion of mail-in voting.

"It doesn't seem right to me. I understand there was a pandemic, but that's going to erode faith in the system," he said.

Schulte, like many Missourians, also doesn't understand the fuss about requiring photo ID. "I think you need an ID for just about anything, don't you?" he asked.

The exterior of the Missouri state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo. The voter bills will likely pass in Missouri, as in other Republican-controlled states. They'll just as likely be challenged in court.
/ Jacob Moscovitch for NPR
The exterior of the Missouri state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo. The voter bills will likely pass in Missouri, as in other Republican-controlled states. They'll just as likely be challenged in court.

Opponents of strict voter ID laws see this as another example of how divided residents in Missouri have become. They argue that some people — especially low-income voters — don't have the resources, know-how or time to secure the required government-issued ID, and that it's a needless deterrent.

For Kayla Reed, executive director of Action St. Louis, it means groups like hers have a lot more work to do. Action St. Louis was formed after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, by protesters frustrated with the Black community's lack of political clout.

Reed sees the push to impose new voting restrictions as a backlash against Blacks exercising their rights amid demographic change.

"More children of color are becoming adults of color are become voters of color. They are trending more progressive, more liberal," she noted.

Kayla Reed is the executive director of Action St. Louis, a group formed after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson.
Pam Fessler / NPR
Kayla Reed is the executive director of Action St. Louis, a group formed after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson.

Her group is trying to make sure these new voters don't get discouraged. Canvassers go door-to-door to get out the vote and to help people see the link between voting and the issues that matter to them, like affordable housing, health care, workers' rights and an end to police violence.

Reed is realistic about the prospect for compromise on voting rules, which seems slimmer now than ever before. She notes that one of the state's Republican senators, Josh Hawley, led a congressional challenge of the 2020 election results as rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in January. And that the state already has pretty restrictive voting laws.

"My job is to ensure that the folks who are dealing with the repression from those decisions have access to as much power as they possibly can," she said. "My work is not bipartisan."

Her goal is to win. And, indeed, this week, St. Louis elected its first black female mayor, Tishaura Jones, the candidate endorsed by Action St. Louis' political arm — one step in a long national struggle for power.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.