Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft launched an effort Monday to educate voters about the state's new voter identification law while defending it against those who believe its real goal is to suppress Democratic votes.
The law, approved by nearly two-thirds of voters in November, doesn't take effect until June. The law doesn't apply to municipal elections on Tuesday and April 4.
Speaking at a news conference at St. Louis City Hall, Ashcroft, a Republican, said he wants to make sure that all eligible voters can cast a ballot. He called Missouri's law a model for other states because it contains provisions that allow voting even without a photo ID.
Under the new law, a registered voter may show a government-issued photo ID such as a driver's license, non-driver's license, passport, or military ID. Voters lacking any photo ID can show proof of identity such as a school or college ID, utility bill, bank statement or government document showing their name and address, and sign a statement.
For those without a photo ID or any documentation of identification, a provisional ballot can be cast. Then, if the signature matches the signature in the voter registry or if the voter returns later with proper photo ID, the vote will count.
Opponents claim that voter ID laws, typically backed by Republicans, are really meant to dissuade poor and minority residents, who tend to be Democrats, from voting. Ashcroft defended the law.
"We know that voter fraud occurs," Ashcroft said. "We know that it's changed elections. I think that is wrong."
When Kevin FitzGerald, a 63-year-old retiree from Ballwin, asked Ashcroft to cite specific cases where voter ID would have made a difference in a fraudulent voting, Ashcroft mentioned one case out of Kansas City. But Ashcroft said he believes many other instances go undetected, potentially swinging elections.
FitzGerald didn't buy it.
"I believe it's an effort to weaken the Democratic party because most of the people affected are minority voters who tend to vote Democratic," FitzGerald, who is white, said.
Democratic state Rep. Bruce Franks of St. Louis said that while he opposes the law, he agreed to work with Ashcroft and state Rep. Justin Alferman, sponsor of the bill, to help develop a plan to educate voters.
But Franks, who is black and in his first term, called the new law "a great solution for a problem we don't have," and said many people in his district can't afford photo IDs and don't know where to get them.
"I think the over-arching idea for voter ID is voter suppression," Franks said.
Ashcroft pledged to do everything he can to make sure voters are not turned away, even if it means going door-to-door in potentially impacted areas.
"That's why I'm here, so they don't stay away from the polls," Ashcroft said.