A state law requiring voters present photo identification before voting is long overdue, said State Rep. Ron Stephens as he called on a Democratically-controlled state legislature to act on a bill that has been "bottled up" for three years.
Surrounded by Republican officials and candidates in the November general election, Stephens (R-Greenville) said that showing a driver's license or other state-issued ID at the polls is an "idea that will work," during a press conference outside the St. Clair County Courthouse Tuesday.
The setting was an apt choice for the GOP leaders to take a stand against voter fraud they claim has been rampant for years in the county. Republicans, who have been woefully under-represented in county-wide seats for decades, point the blame at voting irregularities in East St. Louis which has its own election board separate from the county.
Stephens said his proposal will ensure that "everyone gets to vote and vote one time."
East St. Louis voter fraud lore is legendary among area politicos. Allegations run the gamut from dead people voting to voters casting more than one ballot in extraordinarily high turn out elections.
Last year, five Democratic politicians from East St. Louis were convicted by a federal jury on voter fraud charges.
Stephens said critics who argue that a photo ID law discriminates against poor people are wrong. He said his proposal is "simple, common sense."
"If the only thing that's holding (this) back is money...the Republican Party will fund whatever it takes," said Stephens. He said it costs "a matter of $1" to create a photo ID.
Voter ID oppponents include groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which argue that photo ID requirements at the polls create an unfair barrier to minorities.
Another foe, attorney John Kurowski of Belleville, said he believes that any provision requiring a photo ID to vote is "likely unconstitutional."
Kurowski, who represents the East St. Louis Board of Elections Commissioners, said courts closely scrutinize cases involving access to the polls and have favored protecting the rights of poor people who may not possess a photo ID.
"It (the proposal) may be a violation of the Voting Rights Act," he said. "It may create a potential question whether the state would be in compliance with HAVA (Help America Vote Act)."
HAVA was enacted by Congress in 2002 to provide funds to states to replace punch card voting systems and to provide help with certain federal election laws and programs, among other things.
Stephens was joined by Dennis Bielke, a retired banker who is running for state representative in the 114th District, St. Clair County Board members Craig Hubbard and Steve Reeb, and Matt Hawkins, candidate for St. Clair County Clerk.
Bielke, who is running against one of the longest serving members in the State House, said that at some point even poor people have had to produce identification, whether writing a check at the store, cashing a government check or in a variety of other situations.
He faces Wyvetter Younge of East St. Louis in Novmeber. Younge, who's been in office since 1975, has fended off challenges in the last two elections from women outside East St. Louis.
Protecting citizens' right to vote and the integrity of elections is "very dear to our hearts," said Bielke. "It's why we have people fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
Hubbard, an incumbent running for re-election, said he has been a proponent of fair and equitable elctions, but there is a "long way to go to clear up voter fraud."
In June 2005, five Democratic politicians from East St. Louis were convicted by a federal jury of buying votes, among other charges.
Democratic Party chairman Charles Powell Jr., 61, and Kelvin Ellis, 55, the city's former director of regulatory affairs, of felony conspiracy to commit vote fraud. Also convicted were Democratic precinct committee members Sheila Thomas, 31, and Jesse Lewis, 56, and City Hall worker Yvette Johnson, 46.
Ellis, Thomas, Lewis and Johnson also were convicted of one count of election fraud for paying at least one person to vote, or offering to do so.
During a month-long trial, prosecutors argued, among other things, that money flowed from St. Clair County Democrats to East St. Louis Democrats in November 2004 to ensure the election of Mark Kern in a close race for County Board chairman.
In one of the most closely watched races in St. Clair County in 2004, Kern defeated Reeb because of the overwhelming support he received from Democratic voters in East St. Louis. Reeb, however, won by a three percent margin in the county outside of East St. Louis.
Overall, Reeb was defeated by 3,979 votes, or 51.8 percent to 48.2 percent. Kern received 56,708 votes to Reeb's 52,729 votes.
At the press conference, Reeb said he has been aware of "obvious cheating" in Centreville and Caseyville since 1994.
"There are some areas that are worse," he said.
Reeb said he hopes the U.S. Attorney's office would continue the voter fraud investigation it launched in 2004.
A U.S. appeals court recently upheld an injunction preventing the state of Georgia from enforcing a law requiring voters to show a state-issued ID card.
U.S. District Judge Harold L. Murphy said the law appeared to violate the Constitution. He likened the law to a "Jim Crow-era poll tax that required residents, most of them black, to pay back taxes before voting," according to a Washington Post article.
On the other hand, a federal judge upheld a voter ID law in Indiana in April.
In Missouri, a state court judge has combined two lawsuits in Cole County Circuit Court filed by opponents of a new voter ID law signed into law by Governor Matt Blunt in June.
The suits allege that the law violates Missouri's constitution by imposing unfunded mandates on local election authorities and by imposing obstacles to people's right to vote.
Under the new law, voters who go to the polls this November without proper identification still can cast provisional ballots if two election judges know the voter, or if the voter presents another form of ID, such as an out-of-state driver's license, student ID, utility bill, paycheck or other government document.
In elections after Nov. 1, 2008, voters without proper photo IDs and who are not disabled or elderly, or who do not have religious objections, still could cast provisional ballots. But their votes would not count unless those voters came back with proper ID.