Twenty-three floors below one of Senator Roy Blunt's regional offices, dozens of demonstrators spill across the sidewalk outside of the federal courthouse building in downtown St. Louis. The soon-to-retire Republican is not one to engage a rally not of his choosing, and even so, he's almost surely not upstairs, having spent the mid-September morning with Congresswoman Ann Wagner at the former home of Ulysses S. Grant to announce legislation seeking posthumous honors for the Army general and former president.
Still, those outside the courthouse hope Blunt is not entirely out of reach.
"We know much is at stake," Denise Lieberman, a voting rights expert and director of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, says from atop a set of courthouse stairs. "Our democracy is in crisis. We have witnessed a full-scale assault on our freedom to vote right here in Missouri and in states around the country."
Lieberman and MOVPC have been fighting a succession of restrictive voting bills and practices in Missouri for fifteen years, and this stretch between elections and state legislative sessions would normally be a lull in the ongoing battle. But the fight over who has a say in our government has multiplied in intensity in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. Ex-President Donald Trump's continued insistence on lying about widespread voter fraud and a stolen election has prompted an onslaught of legislation from Republicans in statehouses across the country that would restrict access to the polls. The fact that no mass fraud has ever materialized has done nothing to slow the pace.
Missouri politicos, including rightwing candidates hoping to out-Trump each other in the campaign for Blunt's Senate seat, have played an outsized role in seeding distrust in the election system. Attorney General Eric Schmitt, one of those would-be successors to Blunt, pulled Missouri into one losing legal battle after another to challenge the results in swing states. The state legislature is peppered with senators and representatives on the right who have openly suggested Trump won — and others nervous about what would happen if they admit he didn't. And Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has tried to stand in two places at once: arguing Missouri elections have been safe and secure under his watch, while simultaneously claiming the state is wide open to fraud if it doesn't place more restrictions on voters.
Lieberman sees an old playbook at work — targeting low-income and minority voters by adding unnecessary barriers. But she also sees hope at the state level in Missouri's protective constitution and nationally in a package of voting reforms that rival the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in their potential to ensure everyone has a right to be heard.
Protecting that right, she says in an interview, is at the heart of freedom and self-determination.
"If I don't have the ability to have a say so in my community, if I don't have an ability to speak publicly, if don't have an ability to hold my elected officials accountable, if don't have any ability to have a voice in my own destiny or in the futures of my children, how am I truly free?" she asks. "And that's why, for me, this is a moral imperative."
The rally below Blunt's office at Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse is aimed at appealing to the senator's moderate angels. Blunt and his colleagues have been called upon to approve — or reject — the most sweeping package of changes to U.S. voting laws in three generations. The Freedom to Vote Act, potentially the most viable of several major voting bills, includes reforms such as expanding opportunities to cast a ballot, outlawing the practice of spreading election misinformation, banning partisan gerrymandering, fighting discrimination and shifting campaign finance away from dark money powerbrokers. Support has been split in Congress among party lines, but the demonstrators hope to sway Blunt as he eyes the exit on his long career in public office.
"Finish the job!" they shout.
Technically, demonstrators are calling on Senator Josh Hawley as well, but he is all but a lost cause. Hawley, who has an office next to Blunt's in the upper reaches of the courthouse, is essentially a lieutenant of the forces those at the rally are fighting against. He was the first senator to announce he would object to certifying the Electoral College results in the 2020 presidential election. The move positioned him to capture the attention of Trump's most extreme followers and helped power the narrative of an election system riddled with fraud and crooked officials. On the day of the Senate action, January 6, Hawley was photographed raising his fist to salute people outside the U.S. Capitol who later stormed the building in hopes of reversing Trump's defeat. And when rioters were finally cleared from the Capitol and senators emerged from safe rooms, he was one of just six who objected to certifying the election results.
No one outside the courthouse is reaching Hawley. Just the mention of his name alongside Blunt's draws sarcastic laughter from the crowd. But Lieberman is concerned. There are plenty of people in power right now who share Hawley's positions, or at least, his political instincts.
"I'm not trying to sound dramatic here," Lieberman says later, "but the fate of democracy hangs in the balance right now in a way we haven't seen since the Civil War period."
Lieberman's reference to the Civil War was no offhand comment. Dating back to its inception, Missouri has played a long and often unflattering role when it comes to voting rights. Famously, the Dred Scott case was tried at St. Louis' Old Courthouse, just a few blocks from where Blunt and Hawley now have offices. (The voting rights rally featured performing artist Peggy-Neely Harris acting out a scene drawn from the case.) The Supreme Court ruled against Scott and his wife Harriet in their bid for freedom in 1857. The decision undercut the Missouri Compromise, which Lieberman points out was itself a voting-rights decision, intended to maintain the balance of power between free and slave states. The Dred Scott ruling meant no Black men or women were guaranteed citizenship, and it helped lead to civil war.
Less than twenty years later, the Old Courthouse again played host to a case with critical implications for voting rights. After Virginia Minor, an activist for women's suffrage, was blocked in 1872 from registering to vote in St. Louis, she sued through her husband, a lawyer. The issue eventually landed in the hands of the Supreme Court, which ruled against Minor, finding that the authority to recognize voting rights of women fell to individual states. Denied a federal solution, suffragettes shifted to a state-by-state strategy.
More recently, and relevant to today's landscape of cultivated distrust, St. Louis was the scene of voting fraud allegations that drew national headlines in 2000. Then-Senator Kit Bond accused city Democrats of stealing a Senate seat that year from Republican John Ashcroft in favor of the late Mel Carnahan, who had been killed in a plane crash three weeks before. Nearly 50,000 people, the majority of them Black, had been purged without notice from voting rolls heading into the election, author Carol Anderson recounted in the New York Times in 2018. In the ensuing election-day cluster of confused voters arriving to cast their ballots, a judge ordered polls kept open for an extra three hours to sort out the problems. The order was reversed in a rapid-fire appeal, but instead of decrying the disenfranchisement of multitudes of voters, Bond alleged massive fraud. The sight of him pounding his fist on a lectern while shouting about what an "outrage" it all was only intensified an ugly day. And Bond wasn't letting go.
"I think the evidence points very strongly to a major criminal enterprise," the senator later said at a news conference. "And if this, in fact, happened, if there is evidence of it, I believe prosecution of those who committed any of the acts in the conduct of a conspiracy to defraud voters should be brought to justice."
But there wasn't evidence. An examination of 2.3 million votes cast in Missouri in 2000 eventually turned up just six confirmed cases of ineligible people voting, including people who may have made a mistake. But the narrative carried forward. It is often seen as a key contributor to the genesis of "Stop the Steal" and other unsupported voter fraud claims that Trump used to shatter trust in the election system.
The specter of voter fraud, regardless of the type, has proven adaptable to any number of specific restrictions proposed as protections for election integrity. Conspiracy theories about stolen elections somehow become justification for denying people drinking water and food at poll lines. A Trump defeat in a red state is morphed into a need to replace the people in charge of counting votes. The thud of unpopular ideas is spun into redistricting.
Voting rights experts warn the country is facing a crisis, and the rapid upending of previously accepted values and institutions will cause disaster if left unchecked.
"The rhetoric is so overheated that I think it provides the basis for millions of people to accept an actual stolen election as payback for the falsely claimed earlier 'stolen' election," Rick Hasen, co-director of the Fair Elections and Free Speech Center at the University of California-Irvine, recently told Politico. "People are going to be more willing to cheat if they think they've been cheated out of their just deserts. And if [you believe] Trump really won, then you might take whatever steps are necessary to assure that he is not cheated the next time — even if that means cheating yourself. That's really the new danger that this wave of voter fraud claims presents."
Missouri Republicans started pushing early versions of the photo-ID bills back when Trump was a fake mentor on The Apprentice. But now it finds itself among of a growing wave of voter-restriction proposals filed by Republican politicians across the country. And experts worry that the sum of those many assaults on the trust of elections will have dire consequences.
"The typical response by a losing party in a functioning democracy is that they alter their platform to make it more appealing," Kenneth Mayer, an expert on voting and elections at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the New York Times. "Here the response is to try to keep people from voting. It's dangerously antidemocratic."
In Missouri, Republicans have repeatedly tried to implement a photo-ID requirement at the polls. Republicans have tried for fifteen years to make that happen, despite a pair of Supreme Court rulings in opposition. Earlier this month, state legislators began laying the groundwork for yet another attempt.
"It'll be Groundhog Day again in the General Assembly," state Representative John Simmons (R-Washington) promised at a September 15 hearing of the House Elections and Elected Officials committee. Simmons sponsored a photo-ID bill last session that passed the House but ultimately fell short of making it into law. He has yet to file an updated version for the upcoming session, but the House committee decided to take up the issue anyway in anticipation that Simmons or someone will try again.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft was among those who testified at the September 15 hearing. More than two decades after his father lost to Carnahan, Ashcroft is the state's top election official and a leading voice on the supposed potential dangers of widespread voter fraud. He recently suggested new changes he says would protect the integrity of upcoming elections, such as severely limiting vote-by-mail options and prohibiting election workers from helping voters fix minor problems on their ballots so their vote doesn't get thrown out. At the House committee hearing, he spoke in favor of requiring a photo ID.
"We're trying to make the law more secure but also make sure that everybody can vote that's legally registered," Ashcroft said. "It's that simple."
He concedes he has encountered few examples of actual voter fraud. The 2020 elections, which included expanded eligibility for mail-in and absentee ballots as a concession to the pandemic, were among the state's safest in Ashcroft's assessment. He has, however, sought to strictly limit such options in the future, claiming they leave the state's systems open to abuse. Among his only examples of alleged fraud are cases of two St. Charles men, who Ashcroft claims voted in 2020 in Missouri as well as Florida. In an August news release with the headline "Ashcroft Uncovers Voter Fraud and Demands Prosecution," the allegations are described briefly before a rapid transition to voter fraud writ large.
"Though Secretary Ashcroft is confident these isolated issues are not indicative of problems with Missouri elections, he continues to encourage the legislature to pass strong election changes that would deter and eliminate voter fraud," the news release says.
The release does not explain how the type of fraud that a driver's license might prevent — imposters voting under another's name — would have prevented one person from illegally casting two ballots under their own name.
Critics of photo-ID requirements point out that those least likely to possess a driver's license or a government-issued, non-driver ID are low-income people who do not own cars and who already face other barriers to voting, such as shifting home addresses and work schedules that don't accommodate running around during business hours to gather documents or vote in person. Currently, Missouri voters can use a variety of documents, such as a paycheck, to prove identity.
But supporters of photo-ID requirements say they'll be improving the lives of those same people by forcing them to secure a government-issued photo ID. In the House committee hearing, Representative Dan Shaul (R-Imperial) asked Ashcroft about the other uses for photo IDs during the House committee hearing. Together, they talked through a list of benefits, such as using an ID for banking or entering some government buildings.
"So actually, you're doing more for the good of the people to give them the ID they need to do more than just vote, and you're doing it free of charge?" asked Shaul, who chairs the committee.
"We hope it helps people," Ashcroft replied.
The secretary of state said his office has helped about 1,000 people per year obtain photo IDs. His office has money set aside to help people obtain the documentation, such as birth certificates and other records, needed to complete the process, he added.
Simmons, the likely sponsor of another photo-ID bill, said those helped by Ashcroft's efforts would be better off.
"I applaud the secretary of state and the general assembly who put that provision in to help these people live a more engaged life as well as allow them to vote and have it be a protected vote," he said.
Photo-ID requirements and other restrictions are not doing any favors for people already facing barriers to voting, says Lieberman of MOVPC.
As a longtime attorney working on voting access cases, she represented plaintiffs in North Carolina, where lawmakers sought information on the type of voting methods used most by different races and then drew up legislation that — surprise — hit minority constituents particularly hard. A federal appeals court said the resulting law targeted Black voters with "nearly surgical precision."
New voting restriction laws tend to work that way, Lieberman says. And there has been a flood of them as Trump's false claims of fraud have taken hold with his base. More than 400 bills that would restrict voting access had been filed by mid-July in 2021 in statehouses across the country, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. More than 30 of those bills in eighteen states have been passed into law.
"They are targeting the very practices that voters of color use the most," Lieberman says in an interview. She describes the tactics as "un-American" and considers them a sign of a failure in messaging and vision, an attempt to rig the system as a way to advance unpopular platforms.
"Instead of attempting to include those individuals or expand their base, they realize they can more effectively win elections by limiting who's able to participate," she says.
Lieberman was among those who spoke at that September 15 hearing of the House Elections and Elected Officials committee. Ashcroft had told the committee his office was helping about 1,000 people a year obtain a valid, government-issued photo ID, but Lieberman warned that pace wouldn't come close to reaching the bulk of those who are legally registered but lack a valid driver's license or non-driver's ID. A 2017 report from the secretary of state's office counted more than 200,000 people who fell into that category. And while it's possible the true number is lower due to deaths and registered voters who have moved out of state or otherwise remain on the books, tens of thousands would be left in the wide gulf that remains.
Lieberman urged lawmakers to go a different route: expand access, make it easier to register, easier to vote by mail and abandon the long-running attempt to force new burdens onto people who can least afford them.
"It's patently unconstitutional," she said of strict photo-ID requirements. "We will file a lawsuit. It will be struck down. I suggest that it is folly to yet again consider legislation that it knows to be unconstitutional, that it knows to be struck down. Lawmakers took an oath to defend and protect the constitution of this state. We should not be promulgating legislation that we know clearly and fully to be unconstitutional."We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.