A group that says it wants to “empower the electorate” is gathering signatures in St. Paul and Duluth to seek a charter change that would require voters to show photo identification before casting ballots.
The Minnesota Voters Alliance has about 500 signatures so far in St. Paul and needs 7,100 to get a charter amendment on a future ballot, said Andy Cilek, director of the group.
Cilek said the alliance has worked on other voting issues in recent years — including a court challenge of Minneapolis’ ranked-voting change — and found “people always ask us why we don’t push for photo ID requirements, too.”
So now they are.
“People wonder how a system can instill public confidence, if there’s no measure to deter or detect voter fraud?” he said.
A big task
Cilek said the group hopes to reach the 7,100-signature threshold in St. Paul (5 percent of those voting in the last general election) by July, so the signatures then could be verified and the measure approved by the City Council in time for the November general election.
“But that’s a big task, and it remains to be seen if we can do it. Otherwise, we’ll shoot for 2011,” he said.
The photo identification requirement, if approved, would apply only for city races, such as mayor and city council, he said. School board races are governed by different state laws, as are state-wide elections for the Legislature and constitutional officers.
There’s a question, though, whether the measure could ever make it on a ballot, even if the needed signatures are gathered.
Joe Mansky, head of elections in Ramsey County, said state law may not allow such a measure because it involves a determination of who is or is not allowed to vote.
“State law gives cities with Home Rule — like St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth — the opportunity to use their charters to determine some of the things required for city elections, such as how candidates are nominated and how elections are conducted,” Mansky explained. (That’s why St. Paul and Minneapolis both held, and passed, elections to change their charters to allow ranked voting.)
But Mansky said requiring voters to show identification might not fall under the narrowly defined parameters provided for elections in Home Rule cities.
“I don’t know that the Legislature has given the cities the opportunity to determine who is or is not eligible to vote or allow a different form of voter registrations in some cities but not others,” he said.
“So I would wonder if we could even put this on the ballot. We would not deal with it until the petition is submitted and verified, and then it would be sent to the City Council to see if it meets the legal requirements,” he said.
Safeguard or deterrent?
Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, which advocates political ethics and campaign finance issues, has many problems with the proposal. He said the photo identification issue was raised before the 2008 election as a scare tactic, designed to confuse voters and to keep many poor and elderly people from the polls.
Even though the current petition states that a charter change would include a requirement for cities to “provide the means” to get a photo ID for any citizen who cannot afford one, Dean said that provision would require much time and effort from poor and elderly citizens, and an extra cost for cities.
He also said the provision would increase the likelihood of more extended election battles — such as the Coleman/Franken marathon count — because there then would be photo identification challenges, as well.
Dean said that voter fraud is rare, with one study showing only a handful of cases of individuals impersonating voters.
“It’s not worth the effort and the cost, and it would deter a lot of people from going to the polls,” he said.
“And if they’re allowed to make these kinds of changes, it would mean different voter registration rules in different places around the state. And Norm Coleman argued that there needs to be equal protection, so this is bad policy, whether you’re conservative or progressive,” Dean said.
Message to the Legislature
Cilek said his group hopes that by raising the issue in St. Paul and Duluth, it will bring statewide attention to the matter.
“We’re sending a message to the Legislature: Look what people are saying in two of our biggest cities,” he said. “This helps force the issue; helps push it along.”
Recent attempts to pass a photo ID bill in the Legislature have stalled, he said. A bill requiring picture identification was introduced by Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican from Delano, last session and had two dozen Republican co-authors, but the proposal was defeated in committee and voted down as an amendment on the House floor.
“What we’re doing in Duluth and St. Paul should at least put some pressure on somebody,” he said.
Joe Kimball writes about politics, St. Paul and other subjects. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.