Elisabeth MacNamara — president of the national League of Women Voters, one of the key groups opposing voter ID laws across the nation — stopped in Minnesota this week to meet with elections officials as part of a four-state swing.
The Minnesota League chapter, along with other groups, filed an unsuccessful lawsuit this summer to get the state’s proposed constitutional amendment tossed off the ballot.
League representatives also testified against the amendment as it made its way through the state Legislature last session.
MinnPost caught up with MacNamara for an interview amid her meetings with Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, and a group of ninth-graders at Como Park High School in St. Paul.
MacNamara, the League’s 18th president, has been a member since 1983. She recently retired as a deputy chief assistant district attorney in DeKalb County, Georgia, where she headed the office’s juvenile court division. MacNamara has been keeping a record of her travels in a blog on the Huffington Post.
Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation.
MinnPost: In Minnesota, Photo ID supporters predict the amendment’s two main cost drivers will be providing free identification to voters who lack it and educational campaigns to notify voters about changes to the state election system. What has the experience been like in Georgia?
Elisabeth MacNamara: I don’t know that anybody has actually assessed the costs in Georgia, but in any event, we have 159 counties and all 159 counties had to be equipped with the equipment, the training, the ongoing training to issue free IDs. Over 26,000 free IDs have had to be issued … and we’ve had over 1,500 provisional ballots cast that have not been counted because of ID issues….
You’ve got to weigh that exactly zero cases of voter impersonation fraud have been uncovered as a result of these laws, so in terms of cost benefit, I think that needs to be weighed …
They’re not uncovering instances in which Voter ID is necessary, and so the League’s position is that this is not, particularly here in Minnesota, that you’re being asked to amend your constitution, to put something in your constitution with so little information and so many unanswered questions as to how this is all going to work, what it’s going to cost and what the impacts are going to be on your current system, which works really well, and has been proven over and over and over again to work very well. So … the best way of ensuring the integrity of any voting system is to make sure that every eligible voter has a free and fair access to the polls. We do not have a problem with too many people being registered. We have a problem with too few people … and that is all across the country.
MP: Reports in Georgia, at least, have shown that neither the rampant voter fraud nor the widespread voter suppression that supporters and opponents of Photo ID requirements have cited exist or have come to pass. In fact, one report showed minority turnout increased. What do these results say to you?
EM: One of those elections, you’ve got to remember, they pointed this out, too, was the 2008 election. And, again, the conclusion from the folks that they talked to was that we’ve only been doing this for a couple of election cycles. It’s going to take a while before we can sort all of this stuff out. But that’s really, again, not necessarily the point. The point is that we are re-jiggering … our election systems. We’re spending money on this. We are creating barriers to new voters, to young voters, to elderly voters. And we know that for a fact, because as we’re rolling these things out in various states, we’re hearing from people…
We know that this is impacting individual voters. We know that this is not easy, that this is something that is creating a barrier to voters. And Americans are concerned about the integrity of our electoral process, but what they’re concerned about, from what we can tell, is politicians manipulating our election laws for their own benefit.
MP: How has the national League of Women Voters been supporting state groups across the country and particularly in Minnesota?
EM: We have been supporting the Leagues all the way throughout the country with some experts. We’ve got specialists. We’ve got folks in the national office that work with these laws that can provide expert support for states as they are opposing these things either in the statehouse or, ultimately, a lot of times in the courthouse. We’re also very proud that we’ve been able to supply some funding … and we’ve also been able to pull together the threads of all of these experiences in the various states and talk about those to the national media and also the media in the states.
MP: Specifically, here, how has the national organization participated in the lawsuit over the summer? Have you been participating in lawsuits from the national to the local organizations?
EM: We’re not necessarily from the national board. These are state-level lawsuits, but as I said, we have been assisting states and providing advice and providing resources to the states as they are proceeding. We’ve had a couple of states that have been providing testimony and input to the Department of Justice in states covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and we have been helping and supporting those states as they’ve been … successfully protecting voters in both Texas and in South Carolina. We were in contact here with the League in Minnesota and provided support and advice. The same thing is true in Wisconsin and in Pennsylvania … Of course, not just involving restrictive Voter ID, but we’ve also supported the Florida League in their successful efforts to get back into the voter registration business.
MP: In your experience nationally, how does Minnesota stack up in terms of proposing the Photo ID requirement as an amendment to the state Constitution?
EM: There is only one other state that has done that, and that’s the state of Mississippi. As far as I know, as they were implementing it the Department of Justice has stepped in, and … Mississippi voters will not be presenting Photo ID in this election. Every state where we have gone to court, every state has conceded that there are significant numbers — usually in the hundreds of thousands of voters — that do not have whatever they’re proposing is the requisite photo ID. That was certainly true in Pennsylvania, and I believe that was in lawsuits here or in testimony here in Minnesota….
We’re the greatest democracy in the world because of our history of voting rights, because our elections are free and open, because we are all equal in the ballot box whether we’re rich or poor, whatever our background is. On Election Day, we are all equal. That is what has made this country the country it is and the democracy that it is. And the League believes the best way of ensuring the integrity of our election process is to make sure that it’s free and fair and open to every eligible voter.
MP: Can you describe the League’s history in terms of intervening in the Voter ID issue?
EM: Ninety years ago. I’m not being facetious on that, because the League was founded 92 years ago just as women were winning the fight to get the vote, just as the 19thAamendment was being ratified.
One of the very first tasks that the League undertook was learning about state election laws because our founders recognized that it was state election laws that were going to make the difference between whether or not women could register, could get the information they needed … and could get to the polling place and cast their ballots, make their voices heard.
MP: The League itself is labeled as nonpartisan; what is it like campaigning on such a deeply partisan issue? Is that labeling still true today?
EM: We’ve been working on voting issues for 90 years. We have never supported or opposed a candidate. Our only interest is in advocating and protecting voters.
We want to make democracy work, and the only way to make democracy work is to make sure that every eligible voter is able to register, able to get the information they need and able to go to the polls. That is our only interest. What side the parties have decided to fall on is not our responsibility. Our only concern is for voters, regardless of how they choose to cast their vote. That’s what they decide.
MP: The 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board upheld that Photo ID requirements were constitutional. That case was the basis for Minnesota’s amendment, according to its chief sponsors. How do you think the case will affect things moving forward?
EM: A federal district court in D.C. just considered the Texas Voter ID law, and in that particular case, we saw the court considering the actual issues in the way it was actually going to be confronted on the ground, as it was going to be applied.
We saw the court consider the fact that Latinos are much more likely to be poor in Texas, that they are more likely to be far away from motor vehicle bureaus, that the people may have to travel as much as 250 miles round trip to get the ID, so we were seeing the courts distinguish the Crawford case on the basis of what the evidence showed the actual experience of voters was going to be.
MP: Can you talk about the state of current Photo ID laws that either are set to go into effect this election cycle or that were blocked by state or federal courts?
EM: By our count, there are only four states in which voters will have to present government-issued photo ID in order to vote: Kansas, Tennessee, Georgia and Indiana.
MP: Recent PPP results show support for Photo ID in Minnesota is sagging with 51 percent of respondents in support and 43 percent opposed. How does that compare with what you’re hearing nationally? In context, is that good news?
MacNamara: We’ve only had this on ballots in a couple of states, so I’m not really in a position to be able to comment, and I’m certainly not going to predict outcomes. We certainly want voters to consider the facts, and I think if they consider the facts and they consider the implications of amending the constitution with this many unanswered questions, I think they can draw their own conclusions. And we certainly hope that they keep elections here in Minnesota operating as well as they have been without any additional and unnecessary restrictions.
MP: Has there been anything surprising about Minnesota to you?
EM: We’ve been very consistent across the country in state after state in identifying the issues with these laws and opposing these laws for the benefit of the voters. And I think the Minnesota League has just done an outstanding job, along with its coalition partners, in making sure that Minnesota voters are protected.