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FAQ: Why the Voter ID amendment is a bad idea

Date Published: 09/06/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


After many hours spent talking to folks at the “Our Vote Our Future” booth at the State Fair last week, I’m convinced that if most Minnesotans knew just a few more relevant facts, they would decisively reject the proposed constitutional amendment that would upend and undermine our state’s voting process.

The so-called “photo ID” amendment, quite properly described by Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page as a bait-and-switch proposition, could do extensive damage to a Minnesota voting system that has been long and widely considered one of the cleanest and most accessible in the nation.

A better label would be “Voter Restriction Amendment” or “Voter Suppression Amendment,” as it would impose new obstacles and barriers to one of our most fundamental rights, and in a state that rightfully prides itself on good government and a high degree of citizen engagement.

For starters, it most likely would destroy a current feature allowing registration on Election Day, a highly popular provision used by half a million Minnesotans in a typical presidential election year. And it also could end many of our absentee and mail-in voting options.

It was heartening, in scores of conversations with undecided fairgoers, or those mildly in favor of the amendment, to see minds change with just a little more information. It helped to show folks the actual language in the amendment (as opposed to the misleading ballot question) and how it was opposed by a vast number of respected groups representing the elderly, veterans, people served by nonprofits, and the League of Women Voters.

Here are some of the questions and challenges I heard most often, and the answers that should compel a “no” vote to this proposed travesty.

Q: Isn’t this just common sense? I have to show photo ID for everything else.

A: Actually, you do have to sign an oath avowing that you are eligible. More to the point, voting is a much more fundamental and universal right (and obligation) than cashing checks, buying alcohol, or flying on airplanes. And you CAN often cash a check, use a credit card, or pass through various security screens with various form of identification, or without showing very specific kinds of government-issued photo ID. This amendment likely would take away the right to use ID such as private-college photo ID, used by tens of thousands of our students to vote where they go to school. The actual amendment language, which is not on the ballot, requires that all voters be “subject to substantially equivalent identity and eligibility verification prior to a ballot being cast or counted.” It would be one of the most restrictive photo ID requirements in the nation, without many of the specific exemptions offered in other states.

Q: Doesn’t just about everybody have a driver’s license or state photo ID?

A: No. Not by a long shot. An estimated 200,000 eligible voters, most of them elderly or young or otherwise in transition (having recently moved, say), do not have a “valid” state government photo ID, meaning they have either no state-issued ID at all, or they have one that is expired or not updated with their current address. My 23-year-old daughter currently happens to be one of these people with the wrong address on her driver’s license, and my own driver’s license was expired and invalid for a few weeks earlier this year. If this amendment were in effect and an election had been held while my ID was invalid, I presumably would have been required to return to validate my “provisional” ballot and might well have failed to get validated in time. I’m such an avid voter that I likely would have jumped through the hoops; many others would give up the bureaucratic paper chase.

Q: If people can’t bother to get the right ID ahead of time, why should they be able to vote?

A: For two centuries Americans have achieved universal suffrage by gradually overcoming one barrier after another, like denying the vote to citizens who didn’t own enough property, or were not white, or male, or who were deemed not to be well enough informed. Some states imposed literacy or civics tests on prospective voters, or imposed fees. Thanks in large part to federal and state judicial systems and civil rights and human rights laws, we made great progress in knocking down these barriers, and Minnesota has developed one of the most open and clean election systems in the nation. Federal and state courts recently have been striking down or forcing changes in photo ID legislation, in part because they amount to civil rights violations for communities of color, low-income citizens, homeless veterans, and others.

Q: Wouldn’t this be easy and inexpensive?

A: Not at all. Because it imposes a complicated new parallel system of “provisional balloting” for those without IDs on Election Day (which could delay for days a final result in close elections), and because it also threatens absentee voting, this amendment would usher in a nightmare of extra expense and complications for county and city officials and property tax payers. Up in sparsely populated rural Kittson County (population 4,515), the local North Star News recently published an article citing estimates of local photo ID compliance costs of $700,000 or more. Moreover, we know from other states’ experience that implementing the amendment likely will mean years of protracted litigation, legal appeals, and extended legislative wrangling.

Q: Didn’t voter fraud elect Al Franken, and isn’t Minnesota “#1 in voter fraud?”

A: This is preposterous. The very close recount that gave Franken a narrow victory in the 2008 U.S. Senate race was one of the most thoroughly vetted and watched in the history of our state. Minnesota’s voting system came through with flying colors and earned rave reviews from national observers. The eventual verdict giving Franken, a Democrat, the victory was decided unanimously by judicial panels and canvassing boards and eventually by the Minnesota Supreme Court, with justices mostly appointed by Republican governors. The allegation on billboards that Minnesota is “#1” in voter fraud comes entirely from just one extremist group, Minnesota Majority, which happens to be a ringleader in the effort to enact the amendment. For decades, numerous nonpartisan studies and analyses of state election systems have ranked Minnesota’s among the best, and we typically rank at the very top in voter turnout. Jay Wiener, a distinguished Minnesota journalist and author of a book that exhaustively analyzes the Franken-Coleman recount, has written articles demolishing claims of widespread fraud or allegations that such fraud accounted for Franken’s victory.

My favorite closing argument in State Fair conversations was this: This amendment likely will cost millions of dollars to implement, wreak havoc with our very sound system of same-day registration and absentee voting, and eventually prevent or inhibit tens of thousands of perfectly eligible voters from exercising their sacred right to vote, in order to catch close to zero cases of voter impersonation or double-voting.

And that’s a ridiculously foolish trade-off.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, September 6, 2012.

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