What’s driving Republican lawmakers to shore up voting laws in Missouri?

May 18, 2024


Missouri news network

JEFFERSON CITY — There’s been a steady push by Republicans this legislative session to regulate voting laws in Missouri. It isn’t new, but it’s been gaining steam.

The bills seek to regulate — or restrict — provisions around who can vote and how, the way votes are counted and other matters related to election security.

Almost all aim to address concerns that either don’t exist or to prevent changes from ever happening.

Republicans want to ensure that only U.S. citizens can vote, but the Missouri Constitution and voting qualifications from the secretary of state’s office already outline that requirement.

Republicans want to ban foreign governments from funding constitutional amendments, but the Missouri Constitution addresses foreign influence in elections as well.

Republicans want to ramp up election security by creating a new division that would investigate claims of election fraud, but such division already exists and has been active for more than 10 years.

Republicans want to ban ranked-choice voting, but the voting practice is not established in state law. St. Louis practices a version of it for local elections.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that is often cited by Republicans, has ranked Missouri sixth nationally in its Election Integrity Scorecard.

What is driving Republicans to pursue these voting measures?

For one lawmaker, it’s about election integrity. For another, it’s about being proactive.

Opponents say these efforts are driven by “anti-immigrant bigotry” and a desire for “consolidation of power.”

Justifying causes

Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, has been vocal all session about amending the Missouri Constitution to clarify that only U.S. citizens can vote in Missouri. He takes issue with language in the state constitution that he believes isn’t clear enough on who can and cannot vote in the state.

Article 8 Section 2 of the Missouri Constitution states that “All citizens of the United States … over the age of eighteen who are residents of this state … are entitled to vote.” Hoskins wants “All” changed to “Only” to tame the possibility of noncitizens voting in elections.

But opponents say the constitution is unambiguous on the issue and point to what they believe is behind this rhetoric.

“That just taps into this whole anti-immigrant bigotry fueled by (former President Donald) Trump and is kind of the norm in our American society today,” said Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia.

“You keep pushing this envelope, like, ‘How far can I push this?’ and that leads to other things,” Smith added. “And that’s dangerous.”

Hoskins might get his wish later this year if a proposal aiming to increase the threshold needed to approve constitutional amendments gets one more affirmative vote in the Senate.

In addition to the threshold requirement, the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, would ask voters whether the constitution should be changed to reflect that only U.S. citizens can vote on constitutional amendments and to ban constitutional amendments sponsored by foreign governments.

The proposal has been a focus of Democrats who claim the intention of the two latter provisions is to mislead voters and act as a distraction.

“It takes away from the conversation — and that’s the point of it,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence.

Rizzo, now in his 14th and final year in the legislature, said the push behind Coleman’s proposed changes to the threshold for approving constitutional amendments is driven in part by a desire for Republicans to consolidate power.

“They have had the supermajority for so long now that the only thing left for them to take away is the ability for people to go around them,” he said. “It just drives them crazy that there is an ability for people to have a voice in government that doesn’t go through them.”

Hoskins has an opposite point of view.

“What we’ve seen is, since Missouri has become a more red Republican state, the minority and out-of-state special interests have come in and sponsored some ballot measures in order to try and get something passed,” Hoskins said.

“So it seems like the liberal special interests are, since they can’t get stuff through the legislature because we have supermajorities of all Republicans … they’re coming in and trying to bypass the legislature and put something on the ballot,” he said.

Out of all the proposals by Republicans this session aimed at regulating voting, Coleman’s has drawn the most opposition and scorn. But it isn’t the only one.

Preemptive or premature?

Ranked-choice voting does not occur in Missouri. It’s a practice where voters rank their preferred candidates on one ballot so their votes can be redistributed among top vote getters until a winner is declared after receiving a majority of the vote. Yet Republicans want it banned, saying it’s too confusing.

“I don’t see a good justification to insert a great deal of chaos into the ballot box,” said Rep. Alex Riley, R-Springfield.

Riley said he fears ranked-choice voting would create unnecessary turmoil for voters who might not follow the necessary steps needed to fill in a ballot.

The proposal to ban ranked-choice voting, sponsored by Sen. Ben Brown, R-Washington, is one vote away from being placed on the ballot and has received increased attention this session partly because, similar to Coleman’s bill, it would also ask voters whether the state constitution should be amended to allow only U.S. citizens to vote.

But whereas Coleman’s proposal only addresses constitutional amendments when referring to the citizenship requirement, Brown’s proposal includes all voting in the state.

Smith, who’s had a front-row seat to discussions regarding voting as a member of the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee, doesn’t see the point.

“We don’t have an epidemic of voting problems in America with undocumented people voting,” he said. “That’s not an epidemic, that’s not a problem, that’s not a crisis.”

Smith is correct as far as Missouri’s concerned.

“I’m not aware of that sort of activity on any kind of a large scale,” said JoDonn Chaney, director of communications for the secretary of state’s office, referring to non-U.S. citizens voting in Missouri.

Still, Republicans say they want to be proactive.

“Putting some additional protections within the constitution itself … whether we have massive numbers of illegal immigrants voting in Missouri, I can’t point to that and say, ‘Yeah, we do.’ I can’t say that we don’t. I think that’d be really hard to tell,” Riley said.

“But, to address that issue going forward … it makes sense to me to put some additional language, some additional safeguards in the state constitution itself,” he said.

Republicans take a similar approach of placing protective measures around foreign governments’ ability to make contributions to election campaigns or ballot initiatives.

Hoskins, a candidate for secretary of state, said he believes foreign interference in elections is occurring in Missouri. But when asked if he could provide an example, Hoskins said he couldn’t because of the complexity of the process.

“I believe that foreign governments would not just give directly to one PAC that is promoting or trying to kill an initiative or something that’s on the ballot,” he said.

“It’s probably funneled through a million different ways, four or five different LLCs or companies or PACs or non-for-profits before it actually got to the place where they bought the ads or radio, TV, social media, newspaper, whatever it is,” Hoskins said. “And that’s where it’s very tough to follow the money trail.”

Elizabeth Ziegler, executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission, which is charged with overseeing campaign finance reports, said the agency doesn’t have “any final enforcement actions toward contributions (to) campaign finance committees from foreign nationals.”

Article 8 Section 23, paragraph (16) of the Missouri Constitution also provides protections against contributions made by foreign governments, whether they go toward a candidate committee, campaign committee or a ballot measure:

“(16) No campaign committee, candidate committee, continuing committee, exploratory committee, political party committee, and political party shall knowingly accept contributions from:

(a) Any natural person who is not a citizen of the United States;

(b) A foreign government; or

(c) Any foreign corporation that does not have the authority to transact business in this state pursuant to chapter 347, RSMo, as amended from time to time.”

‘People versus politicians’

Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, said there are two underlying reasons he believes are behind Republicans’ motivation to push measures intended to make it harder to vote.

“First, it is a way to appeal to GOP primary voters,” Squire said. “Republican incumbents want to make sure that they are not vulnerable to a challenge from their right. Second, there is a calculation that making voting harder will hurt Democratic voters more than Republican voters, though that may not prove to be the case.”

This is an election year for state offices and many Republican incumbents who are termed-out in the legislature are running for various statewide offices. As a result, rhetoric on the Senate floor this session has been filled with talk that sounded more and more like campaign speeches.

“Ultimately, this push, it’s more of the national narrative bleeding down into the state,” said Connor Luebbert, a lead advocate for the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.

Or it just may be a fight between people and their politicians.

“In the baseball game of politics, it’s people versus politicians and the politicians want their home runs to count for double,” Rizzo said.