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.