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Missouri's Deep Partisan Divide Over Who Has Access To Voting Polls

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Republican-led House in Missouri recently approved a measure that would impose stricter voter ID requirements. It's one of many voting restrictions favored by Republicans after losing the 2020 presidential election. Democrats see these changes to election rules as a way to change election outcomes. NPR's Pam Fessler reports from Missouri.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: They gathered last week on the windswept steps of the Missouri state Capitol - representatives of the NAACP, the ACLU, Black faith organizations - all part of a network fighting restrictive voting laws here and across the country.

DENISE LIEBERMAN: Good morning, Missouri voter protection advocates.

FESSLER: Their leader is Denise Lieberman. She runs the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, a group born 15 years ago when the state was among the first to try to enact a strict voter ID law. Republicans are trying again, along with restrictions on ballot initiatives and street protests.

LIEBERMAN: We are here today to say no.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No.

LIEBERMAN: No to voter suppression, no to photo ID and no to efforts to silence the voices of Missouri's voters any longer.

(CHEERING)

FESSLER: This battle has taken on a new sense of urgency. Democrats, and especially voters of color, say bills being pushed here and in Georgia, Arizona, Florida and elsewhere are part of a broad assault on democracy. Reverend Darryl Gray, a coalition leader, sees it as a response to Democrats' recent successes at the polls with the help of Black and brown voters.

DARRYL GRAY: It is deliberate. It is strategic. And it's all about securing and maintaining political power.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) No more...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Jim Crow.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) No more...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Jim Crow.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) No more...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Jim Crow.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) No more...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Jim Crow.

GRAY: Now, let's go inside.

FESSLER: Inside, it's a very different world. While voting rights advocates were chanting about Jim Crow, gun rights advocates were speaking in the rotunda. They included Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the armed St. Louis couple who gained notoriety last summer when they confronted Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home. For the voting rights advocates, GOP support of the McCloskeys is another sign people here want to silence their voices. For the Republican sponsors of voting bills, nothing could be further from the truth.

CHERI TOALSON REISCH: I've been called racist, a Nazi and everything else, and it is just totally false.

FESSLER: Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch says she just wants to shore up the system so people are confident it's safe from fraud. She's been on a 40-year crusade to rid voter rolls of the names of those who don't belong there.

REISCH: I save obituaries. I take a copy box, I put the obituary page in it and then come back to it in about six months, maybe 12 months, pull it out, check online and see if they're still registered to vote or not.

FESSLER: Often, they are. Her bill would give the secretary of state power to remove those names, something opponents fear will lead to voter purges. When asked if any of the dead people have actually voted, Reisch gives the answer repeated by Republicans across the country.

REISCH: I can't answer that question because it's an unknown. And it's rare that they would get caught if they're dead.

FESSLER: She says even if only one is caught, which sometimes happens, it's one too many. Down the hall, her colleague, Republican John Simmons, sponsor of the voter ID bill, sits in a small office with a large American flag covering one of its walls. Simmons says he's trying to protect voting rights, not restrict them, that the state will help people get the required ID. He insists that no legitimate voter will be blocked from the polls.

JOHN SIMMONS: It's actually a completely false narrative. I'm really not sure why they keep promoting that. I think they're trying to still scare people that are in their voting bloc because there's actually been studies turnout actually is increasing in that group of population - the minority group, the urban group.

FESSLER: And it's true Black voter turnout has gone up, but advocacy groups say it could be even higher without the barriers. These bills will likely pass here, as in other Republican-controlled states, and just as likely they'll be challenged in court. GOP lawmakers say they're bolstered by the support of constituents. Polls show a majority of Republicans have absorbed former President Trump's repeated lies that the election was stolen through widespread fraud. At the very least, some voters have their doubts. Dan Schulte is one of them. He's at the St. Louis election office to cast an absentee ballot in a local mayoral race. Schulte says despite the lack of evidence, it certainly seems there was fraud in the 2020 elections with all those last-minute rule changes, like expanding voting by mail.

DAN SCHULTE: It doesn't seem right to me. I understand there was a pandemic, but that's going to erode faith in the system.

FESSLER: And Schulte, like many other voters, doesn't understand all the fuss about requiring photo ID.

SCHULTE: I think you need an ID for just about anything, don't you?

FESSLER: But opponents of ID laws counter that some people don't have the resources or know-how to secure one, and it's a needless deterrent.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

FESSLER: For voting rights advocates, this is just another example of how divided residents in this state have become.

T: My name is T. I'm with Action Power Project. We're getting the word out about the upcoming election for mayor.

FESSLER: Canvassers from Action St. Louis have been knocking on thousands of doors in the city to get people out to vote for candidates and issues that help the Black community.

T: I appreciate your time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you.

T: Have a great day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You too.

FESSLER: The group was formed after the police killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson by protesters frustrated with their lack of political clout. Executive Director Kayla Reed sees new voting restrictions as part of a backlash she calls as American as apple pie.

KAYLA REED: More children of color becoming adults of color becoming voters of color, they are trending more progressive, more liberal.

FESSLER: So her group's trying to make sure these voters don't get discouraged, that they see the link between voting and the issues that matter to them, like affordable housing, health care, workers rights and an end to police violence. When I ask Reed if she sees any common ground for compromise on voting laws, she pauses.

REED: My job is to ensure that the folks who are dealing with the repression from those decisions have access to as much power as they possibly can. My work is not bipartisan.

FESSLER: Her goal is to win. And indeed, this week, St. Louis elected its first Black female mayor, Tishaura Jones, the candidate endorsed by Action St. Louis' political arm, one step in a long national struggle for power.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "APRIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.