Voter ID amendment passes through state Senate in 35-29 vote

By Chris Curtis and Karl Heinritz

Unless the state Supreme Court intervenes, Minnesotans will vote in November on a contentious, state constitutional amendment that has broad implications for how they exercise their voting rights. Commonly known as the Voter ID Amendment, the bill would include requiring voters to bring a government-issued photo ID to the polls. Amidst a national debate pitting the right to vote against concerns about the integrity of elections, the Republican majority prevailed on April 4 in a hotly debated 35-29 state Senate vote, putting the measure on November’s ballot. State Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL), whose district includes the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, described the measure as a “Trojan horse” that will mislead Minnesotans into voting for an apparently simple requirement to provide a photo ID at polls. The court might consider altering the language or removing the measure from the ballot. Gov. Mark Dayton this week cast a symbolic veto of the legislature’s action, but he lacks authority to stop a constitutional amendment from appearing on the ballot. The Republican co-authors, Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson and Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake, hailed the passage as an important step in preventing election fraud. Democrats generally oppose the amendment over concerns it will disenfranchise some voters and end the popular system of election day registration. Minorities, students, seniors and voters overseas are thought to be most at risk. Currently, a person seeking to vote needs only a signed statement from a registered voter attesting to his or her Minnesota residency, a system known as vouching. Prospective voters can also present recent utility bills and a variety of other IDs. Critics of the system believe it is far too easy to manipulate and leaves elections susceptible to fraud. Those opposing change say election fraud is virtually nonexistent across the nation. Ambiguously, it calls for new standards of “substantially equivalent” verification of voter eligibility. Those who do not meet the new requirements will file “provisional ballots.” The state of Minnesota would be required to provide photo IDs free of charge. The amendment lacks an accompanying implementation law to put the changes into effect, leaving open questions of what is “substantially equivalent” and how provisional balloting would work. Also undetermined are which forms of ID would be acceptable. If the electorate approves the constitutional amendment in November, the 2013 legislature will decide how to interpret the amendment into actual law. Sponsors of the bill see a straightforward issue: to prevent voter fraud and buttress public confidence in elections. Kiffmeyer is no newcomer to election law, having served as Minnesota Secretary of State from 1999 through 2007. She argues that in a time where a photo ID is needed for even simple transactions, it is neither unreasonable nor burdensome to have voter ID requirements. Democrats, including current Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Murphy, disputed how these changes will affect voters. “The proposed amendment represents a massive change in the framework and structure of elections with none of the details of how it would work,” Ritchie said. “It reflects a desire not to have the actual content of the law visible to voters,” he said. Republican Andrew Ojeda ’13, who is running against Murphy in November, expressed lukewarm support for the amendment. “People should know that their government is preserving the integrity of their vote, but there are alternatives that have not been mentioned,” he said in an interview. Ojeda said he will vote for the amendment if no better alternatives are proposed, as it “may be the only chance” to safeguard the election process. “The amendment is a way to avoid the veto,” Ojeda said, “and the constitution needs to be taken seriously.” “To go around the legislative process with a constitutional amendment is an exercise of power, not an exercise of leadership,” Murphy said. “I am certain that there will be legal voters unable to vote,” Murphy said in a softer tone. She worries that senior citizens, students, and members of the military stationed overseas would struggle to provide the documentation required by new standards. As Secretary of State, Ritchie is Minnesota’s chief election official and would be responsible for implementing the new law. Citing a recent study by his office, he said 215,000 Minnesotans do not have a current photo ID, including 84,000 seniors, “some of them voters since Roosevelt.” Ritchie is deeply concerned about Minnesotans away from home. “How someone in Baghdad can provide the same physical identification as someone in the Mac-Groveland district, I do not know, but it will increase the complexity and barriers of voting for our soldiers and citizens overseas,” he said. He also believes the amendment will trigger burdensome federal oversight of Minnesota elections under nationwide laws that protect voting rights. The amendment does not explicitly ban election-day registration. However, opponents believe the complexity of stricter requirements will effectively end the system. Prospective voters who do not meet the new registration standards, and those who forget their ID, can file a provisional ballot at the polling station. Determined voters would then to go to a local court with proper documentation to verify their vote. Ritchie argued that this will create a “parallel” bureaucracy that will slow down election results, burden the courts, and incur needless expenditure. He also said 30 percent of provisional ballots nationwide are never counted. If voters fail to meet the new requirements a second time, they have the right to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which is required by law to examine all cases of suffrage. Despite these concerns, supporters of the bill believe that the new requirements are crucial to preventing election fraud. While opponents have found little empirical evidence of fraud, a conservative group, We Want Voter ID, states on online that “over 6,000 registrants” in Minnesota “could not be verified” after they were counted in the 2008 election. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports stricter voting requirements, said in a memorandum that “voter fraud may be a part of America’s history, but it does not have to be part of America’s future.” In 2008, the US Supreme Court found no evidence of voter fraud in an Indiana case. However, an Indiana law requiring photo ID was ruled constitutional on grounds that it did not unduly burden voters. A case in Missouri was struck down last month on grounds that the ballot question was misleading to voters, similar to concerns that many have voiced about the Minnesota amendment. Both sides acknowledge that the courts are likely to play a significant role in determining what the amendment will mean if it passes. Minnesotans should prepare themselves for more political wrangling as November draws near. Chris Curtis and Karl Heinritz wrote this article for Prof. Aron Kahn’s News Reporting and Writing class in the Media and Cultural Studies Department. refresh –>