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College Church helps St. Louisans get crucial IDs

MIDTOWN – Edna Scott and Juan Chambers arrived early at St. Francis Xavier College Church on Tuesday morning. The line was already out the door. 

About 20 people were waiting at 9 a.m. to get into the church’s identification outreach program. They needed birth certificates or state IDs in order to get jobs, housing, food stamps. And if Missouri lawmakers get their way, they’ll need a state ID to vote. 

“I haven’t tried to seek a birth certificate in a long time,” Chambers said, “and now we’re trying to get an apartment. We both need our birth certificates.”

Scott doesn’t know if her birth certificate was issued in Missouri or Illinois. If it’s in Missouri, she’ll be able to get it in a day — though she has to physically go to St. Louis City Hall to check. If it’s in Illinois, that could take up to six weeks.

“That’s just because Illinois is pretty backed up,” said Tess Sanders, an outreach coordinator at the church, 3628 Lindell Boulevard on the campus of St. Louis University.

The volunteers helping Scott and Chambers made calls to city and state agencies to help guide the couple through the process. Throughout the room, about 25 volunteers did the same with people sitting at the 10 other tables. 

And they’re working through a variety of challenges. Some states require photo IDs to obtain birth certificates. In Missouri, you must have a birth certificate to obtain a state-issued photo ID. 

It’s a catch-22, Sanders said.

The church’s ID and birth certificate program, which is the cornerstone of its social ministry, sees about 60 to 80 people every Tuesday. On average, they help 3,400 people a year, helping them obtain about 2,200 Missouri IDs and 1,700 birth certificates. 

And they cover the costs to obtain these documents, which totals about $50,000 every year, said Christine Dragonette, director of social ministry at the College Church. 

The program, begun in 1993, is the only program in the state that’s helping people at this volume. And if the Missouri Legislature is successful in re-instating a voter ID law this year, the group’s efforts wouldn’t be anywhere close to enough to reach everyone who may need help.

“There are thousands of people that we work with and thousands more across the state who have experienced barriers to getting IDs,” Dragonette said. “We have no illusions that we meet the entire need for photo identification across the St. Louis region even.”

Voter ID law

Missouri Republicans have been trying to enact a state-issued photo ID requirement to vote for the last 15 years. Legislation has passed several times, but it’s never been able to fully withstand legal challenges. 

In February, the Missouri House passed a bill requiring registered voters to have a government-issued photo ID to vote, or only be allowed to cast a provisional ballot on Election Day. 

The Missouri Senate is expected to hold a public hearing on the bill soon. Provisional ballots can be counted only if the voter returns later that day with a photo ID or if election officials can verify the person’s signature based on voter records.

Last November, only 2,139 provisional ballots were counted out of 5,256 that were cast, according to the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office.

There were 2,407 ballots rejected because the individuals were not registered or eligible to vote, according to secretary of state records.

There were 920 people who arrived at their right polling place but didn’t have the correct form of ID, so they cast a provisional ballot. Of those votes, 484 were counted. Records do not specify why 375 ballots were rejected, but 40 were cast out because the signatures on the ballots didn’t match the signatures in the voter registration records.

“Requiring a photo ID to vote would absolutely disenfranchise a whole host of people who are already disenfranchised in so many ways,” Dragonette said. 

About two years ago, Dragonette joined a lawsuit against the Missouri Secretary of State and Department of Revenue offices for the new voter ID law. 

It all started with a letter to the editor in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that argued that everyone can easily obtain a state-issued ID.

“All of our volunteers who work with folks every week — who don’t easily have access to a photo ID — were rightly incensed and really wanted to respond,” she said. 

They wrote a response letter, and the Voter Protection Coalition and other groups involved in the lawsuit sought Dragonette out.

The lawsuit stemmed from a voter ID constitutional amendment approved by Missouri voters in 2016 that allowed someone to cast a ballot without a state-approved photo ID only after signing an affidavit under the penalty of perjury.

In January 2020, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the affidavit because it deemed it to be “misleading” and therefore unconstitutional. 

In the same ruling, the court considered the state’s request to strike the non-photo ID options altogether – which is what the pending legislation would do – and concluded that it posed “constitutional concerns and could not have been adopted by this Court.”  

While the state is supposed to provide IDs to people for free if they can’t pay, there are still costs involved in getting the documents needed to obtain the ID, the Supreme Court’s ruling noted. 

Also, each person gets only one free ID.

“As a result, with the exception of individuals older than 70 whose photo identifications do not expire, prospective voters, in future elections, will be required to pay a fee to obtain photo identification,” the Supreme Court ruling states.

The Department of Revenue offices that the program works with regularly know about the provision in the law that requires them to provide IDs for free. But volunteers have spoken with officials from many DOR locations that don’t understand this, Dragonette said. 

And the voters, themselves, do not know about that provision.

“Each week we tell people about the free ID to vote and get blank stares,” Dragonette said, “because virtually no one has heard of it or knows anything about this resource.”

This article by Rebecca Rivas is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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