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Lessons from S. Carolina: Minnesota may avoid federal scrutiny, but it shouldn't suppress the vote with ID requirement

Two days before Christmas the U.S. Department of Justice took action to block South Carolina from newly enacted voter-ID requirements. The DOJ acted under its authority to disapprove of voting schemes that disenfranchise racial minorities in states with a notable history of racial discrimination. Although Minnesota is not included in this legal category because it did not use the poll tax and other mechanisms to prevent African-Americans from voting in the same way as some Southern states did, we should strongly consider that the voting restrictions blocked as discriminatory may be voted on by the Minnesota public as a potential amendment to the Minnesota Constitution this fall.  

South Carolina's government passed the new voter laws this year in order to, according to lawmakers, curb fraud. The first problem posed by these laws is that the fraud lawmakers complain of — mainly voter impersonation — just doesn’t exist outside of a few anecdotes, as consistently found by law enforcement and journalists, and extensively examined by the Brennan Center for Justice over the last few years. The other problem is that requiring a government-issued and currently valid ID at the polls will inevitably prevent many people from legitimately voting (the Brennan Center put the number at potentially 11 percent of eligible voters).

In other words, the law does not prevent illegitimate votes but does prevent many legitimate ones.

More about political gain than fraud
While lawmakers don't often admit it, the drive for this law is largely political. Those citizens kept from voting more often vote Democratic — that is, college students, the elderly, the disabled, the poor and racial minorities. And it is this last group that caught the attention of the Justice Department, which is empowered by the Voting Rights Act to prevent South Carolina from curbing the electoral rights of racial minorities.   

That brings us to Minnesota. We chose a divided government in 2010, and Republicans couldn't get South Carolina's voter-ID bill by the Democratic governor. Instead, they are trying to place the law on the ballot this fall as a proposed constitutional amendment to be voted on by the citizenry.

Such an amendment would be a drastic step for any state's election system, but especially Minnesota's. This state is universally known as having one of the most open and fair election models in the country, and does not have the same history of voter discrimination as the former-Jim Crow South, which is why Congress has not given the federal government veto power over Minnesota's voter laws. (That is not to say we haven't had our own problems with racism.)

Minnesota's traditionally bipartisan goal
The goal of full electoral participation here has been pursued and shared by both Democrats and Republicans historically, regardless of whether that policy favored one party or another. So as the facts and arguments continue to play out between the Justice Department and South Carolina, it is important for Minnesotans (of whatever party) to consider whether we want to stand by our traditions.

Though our state's forebears didn't discriminate the same as in the South, which may cause us to avoid the federal scrutiny employed against South Carolina, that is no reason to start now.

Adam Welle is an attorney in private practice in Minneapolis.

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Comments (4)

There's more than one political advantage to bottlenecking voting. Claiming that voter fraud is rampant and then "doing something about it" creates a favorable impression on people who believe the lie in the first place. And, quite frankly, even if those people discovered the lie, I'm sad to say that they might not have a problem with the disenfranchisement of "those people."

Obama's department of "justice" is playing politics with this action. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in April of 2008 that states can require voters to produce photo identification without violating their constitutional rights, validating voter ID laws.

It was my understanding that it was a coalition of about a dozen groups that brought the suit, including AARP, NAACP, and League of Women Voters. Perhaps you can speak to this Dennis as you seem to be knowledgeable about the specifics on this case. And Dennis, how is this new ID law different from Indiana? Are both of these the Koch plan?

The point really becomes - other than an attempt by the GOP to take away votes from the Democrats - that the state is intruding itself into people's lives by throwing up barriers. These are regulations. Horror word that in most cases: regulations are inherently evil, we're told. Here, those regulations are invasive of privacy and require citizens to do work just to be able to undertake what we're taught in school is an obligation. In this country, it's now becoming impossible to keep a felon from owning a weapon, even if the felon committed a gun crime, as it's becoming substantially more difficult for many people to vote. We are eliminating regulations that protect the public safety - according to the police, not me - while adding regulations that restrict the ability of people to participate in our democracy.