Why Missouri is a bellwether state for voter protection

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Bill Motchan, Special For The Jewish Light

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate will have an opportunity to vote on the Freedom to Vote: John R Lewis Act following passage last week by the U.S. House of Representatives. Voting rights advocates around the country are pressing their senators to consider support for the wide-ranging bill. Those advocates include Denise Lieberman, director and general counsel of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.

Lieberman, a member of Central Reform Congregation, spoke with the Jewish Light about the voting rights act, the politicization of the issue, and why Missouri is a bellwether state for voter protection.

Can you explain how the voter protection bill made its way to the Senate?

On Thursday (Jan. 13), the House passed it through a mechanism that allows it to go directly to a vote on the floor of the Senate without having to go through the cloture vote. They’re actually going to be able to talk about the merits. With cloture they aren’t even allowed to talk about the bill. What we’re hearing from our folks in D.C. that this legislation is not dead yet.

How will supporters of the bill communicate its strengths to their senators?

We’re going to focus our MLK Day celebrations on this issue. We’ve got a national coalition call-in line to make calls to Senator (Roy) Blunt and Senator (Josh) Hawley to at least let this come to a vote and to move forward. We’re participating as part of a national day of action on King Day that the King family has endorsed.

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You addressed the CRC community in a Shabbat message on January 7 where you said voting rights isn’t a partisan issue. But isn’t it partisan in terms of support for this congressional action?

It is getting embroiled in partisanship in Washington, D.C., but around the country, it’s not.  Nationwide polling has shown that a majority of Democrats, a majority of self-described independents, and a majority of self-described Republicans agree with the underlying provisions in the Freedom to Vote act. They want to see greater transparency in campaign finance, they want people to be able to vote by mail and have a level playing field of access. It’s only partisan in the hands of people with political stakes to gain. The rhetoric is disingenuous and it’s about campaigning and not about what’s right for the American people. There is a baseline of support to make sure elections are free, fair and accessible.

You mentioned mail-in voting. Why couldn’t we do that in Missouri?

A lot of states have total mail-in voting. It takes a little while to ramp up full mail-in voting. But yes, we can work to get there. There are five states that are completely mail-in voting, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii. They took about a decade to ramp up completely, but a majority of other states allow mail-in voting through no-excuse absentee voting. That’s something we could easily implement as a starting point here in Missouri. It’s supported in Missouri by Democrat and Republican election officials. Now it’s embroiled in political rhetoric, and it’s so unfortunate because if 2020 taught us anything it’s that people want to be able to vote by mail. 

Are you optimistic about states like Missouri being able to withstand threats to voting rights?

Ultimately, I’m optimistic or I wouldn’t be doing this, and I’ve been doing it for 25 years. Here’s what we know. This past year we saw an unprecedented number of anti-voting legislation efforts, over 420 restrictive voting bills introduced in 49 out of 50 states. A number of the worst bills that passed in Georgia, Texas and Arizona are being challenged in court, but because the protections of voting rights have been so whittled down and because other legal protections are not in place, those court challenges are going to be difficult, very costly and time-consuming. Here in Missouri we have the benefit of a strong state constitution. Many people don’t realize that the Missouri constitution protects the right to vote at a higher level than the U.S. Constitution does.

How many voters in Missouri don’t have a photo ID?

Over 6% do not. That’s more than 200,000 valid registered voters who do not have a Missouri nonexpired ID on file with the Department of Revenue. The reason this is problematic and discriminatory is that while over 90% have a nonexpired photo ID, that leaves a good chunk of people who don’t and would have difficulty getting one. The reason it’s difficult is because you’re limited under these proposals. The ID has to be issued by the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). In Missouri, DMVs are pseudo-private franchises. DMV offices are often not open evenings or weekends and they’re not located near public transportation routes, so they’re difficult to get to if you don’t have a white color job where you can take off early, and for people who don’t drive. We also know that not every county in Missouri has a DMV office.