JEFFERSON CITY — A judge heard arguments Friday surrounding Missouri's new elections and voting law, as civic groups request that the court block portions requiring photo identification and restricting the ability to register large numbers of voters.
Two lawsuits filed last month by the Missouri NAACP and League of Women Voters seek to invalidate key parts of House Bill 1878, a sprawling bill passed by Republican lawmakers and signed by Gov. Mike Parson earlier this year. It took effect Aug. 28 and will be in effect for the November general election, unless the courts intervene.
Under the law, voters are required to bring specific forms of photo identification to the polls, and groups seeking to help register more than 10 new voters must apply with the Secretary of State's Office.
Attorneys from the ACLU of Missouri and Missouri Voter Protection Coalition asked Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem to proceed with a trial immediately, arguing that the upcoming November election provides a tight timeline. If the law is allowed to proceed, they argued, some voters will be disenfranchised. Lawmakers have passed legislation attempting to require photo identification several times over the last 20 years, most recently in 2020, all of which have been dismantled by state courts.
"Here we are again, with very similar restrictions, but nothing has changed in fact," said Tony Rothert, an attorney with the ACLU of Missouri.
"The legislature has to know that this law is unconstitutional," Rothert said, arguing that the few months between its being signed into law and the November election was much less time than previous versions.
Solicitor General John Sauer, defending the state, asked Beetem to dismiss the case, arguing that the groups lacked the legal standing to proceed while criticizing how close to the election the case is being considered. Absentee voting for the Nov. 8 general election begins next week in Missouri, creating a timeline that Sauer called "completely, completely unreasonable," and that could result in some voters being treated differently throughout the course of the election.
"Here's my question, is how many times do we litigate this?" Beetem said during the Friday hearing.
Groups seek to block voter registration restrictions
The civic groups also sought Friday for Beetem to block part of the law that restricts helping large numbers of people register to vote.
Under House Bill 1878, anyone who assists more than 10 people with registering to vote or "soliciting" an absentee ballot application must register with the Secretary of State's office, as well as being a registered voter themselves. Violating those terms could result in a "class 1 election" felony, which could result in the offender losing their right to vote.
Attorneys representing the NAACP and League of Women Voters said that aspect of the law had significant impact on the operations of the groups — the League had thrown out a number of materials they would normally distribute, and the NAACP has stayed away from speaking to voters about applying for absentee ballots.
The new restrictions also violate core political speech protections in the Constitution in a "sweeping, unprecedented" way, the groups argue.
"The state of Missouri has made it a felony to approach your neighbor and say 'hey, I'd really like you to register' (to vote),'" said Danielle Lang, an attorney representing the groups. "It's not a close question, it's not a close call. ... It is an absolute prohibition for some people."
Attorneys for the state argued that the court should consider the restrictions within the law to be "not severe" and "lesser burdens," and to leave the law in place. They argued that an "absentee ballot application increase can result in an increase in absentee ballot fraud," but declined to provide specific examples when pressed by Beetem.
"It's not the state's burden to come forward with that specific of evidence," said Charles Capps of the Missouri Attorney General's Office.
Beetem appeared skeptical at the state's arguments surrounding potential fraud. When presented with a suggestion by Capps that dead people's names could be used to vote, Beetem responded "do we have a lot of dead people voting in Missouri?"
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft found two cases of alleged voter fraud in the 2020 election, relating to St. Louis County residents who voted by mail twice, once in Florida and once in Missouri. Lang told the court that "in 2020, vote by mail was secure and safe."
Beetem did not make an immediate ruling on either case Friday.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Photo ID law: State asks judge to throw out lawsuit ahead of election