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Voter ID issue advances at Capitol, but facts continue to get in the way

The “Voter ID” movement pushes ahead Tuesday with a bill that assumes that folks regularly attempt to impersonate others on Election Day and that convicted felons can be stopped with a newfangled ID card.

A funny thing happened recently to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on its way to nailing an alleged illegal voter.

Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigative arm found that clerical mistakes are sometimes made and that people can be accused of trying to vote illegally when they actually didn’t.

The investigators, with the aid of Hennepin County elections officials, learned that clerks at the state Department of Vehicle Services can wrongly check off boxes and that workers at voting locations can incorrectly mark a voter roster.

We mention this as the “Voter ID” movement pushes ahead again Tuesday with its bill, sponsored by Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, in the Senate Finance Committee. It’s the companion of House File 210, backed by former Secretary of State and current Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake.

It’s a bill that assumes that people regularly attempt to impersonate others on Election Day and that convicted felons can be halted from voting with the use of some newfangled Voter ID card. Wrong assumptions, indeed.

The Voter ID effort in Minnesota is, as Gov. Mark Dayton has said, “largely a solution in search of a problem.” After sitting through testimony at an earlier hearing, I think it’s obvious any Voter ID rule would mostly help to disenfranchise a variety of subsets of voters, such as senior citizens, citizens with disabilities and students. It’s even possible these groups lean towards voting Democratic, but that’s not the issue. Is it?

Minnesota Majority returns
In advance of this final Voter ID push at the Legislature, the Minnesota Majority last week announced yet another chase for felon voters in 70 of the state’s 87 counties. Minnesota Majority, a conservative group, claims that 222 “ineligible felons” voted in 2010 and that “maybe as many as 743” could have committed voter fraud.
It should be noted that after the 2008 election, Minnesota Majority, which opposes gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and doubts global climate change, alleged that 2,803 felons had “participated” in that year’s voting. But a more thorough review and survey (PDF) of 71 of the state’s 87 county attorneys — representing 93 percent of the electorate — released last November by Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota and other voter watchdog groups found a total of 38 convictions for felons voting or registering to vote. Since then, that number has increased but is likely below 100. Minnesota Majority seems to have been off by 2,700 cases.

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer

The executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association even publicly criticized Minnesota Majority’s “wildly overstated” felon voting allegations.
Mistakes made
Voter ID advocates seem to have two basic factual problems in their efforts to make it more difficult for some citizens to register and vote.

One is their charge that we need Voter ID laws to halt “voter impersonation.” The other goes to the belief that Voter ID would halt alleged “felon voting.”

In 2008, county attorneys in 71 of Minnesota’s 87 counties investigated a total of seven impersonation charges out of 2.9 million voters, according to the election integrity group’s survey. There were, as of mid-2010, no reported convictions.

Nationally, the Brennan Center at New York University released a study (PDF) four years ago that asserted, almost comically: “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

Even if someone wants to vote who shouldn’t, these are not open-and-shut cases. A mere examination of documents — as Minnesota Majority likes to do — is not sufficient.

Let’s take a look at one case we heard about in Minneapolis that illustrates the trickiness of making accusations stick.

Last January, Homeland Security’s ICE got wind of one voter who was not a citizen and who seemed to have tried to cast a ballot illegally. That’s a felony that should be prosecuted.

Doing its job, ICE investigated, beginning with a phone call and then an ominous letter (PDF) to Hennepin County officials, seeking a voter log, certified registration and voter history.

In an exchange of emails we’ve seen, as officials investigated, a few things soon became clear to Hennepin County elections workers and ICE.

First, when this non-citizen applied for a driver’s license, the Department of Motor Vehicles erroneously marked that this non-citizen wanted to register to vote. But, the investigation found, he never checked that opt-in box.

First mistake.

When his wife went to vote last November, she apparently looked at the poll roster and told the election worker that her husband was not a registered voter. The elections worker wrote the word “challenge” next to the man’s name on the roster.

With that, this non-citizen received a voter history, even though he didn’t vote.

Second mistake.

ICE case closed. His “voter history” was removed by the county.

The point: Allegations don’t always become the prosecutable truths in this very rare voter-fraud world.

As for felon voters, if the problem is rampant, then a Voter ID isn’t the way to get at it. Voter IDs wouldn’t prevent felons from voting, opponents of the bills say. For instance, a driver’s license, which can be used to obtain a Voter ID, doesn’t indicate a person’s criminal status.

“They’re talking about a solution that doesn’t address the issue,” said Kathy Bonnifield, CEIMN’s associate director.

What’s needed is continuing and improved communication between county probation officers, county attorneys, the Secretary of State’s Office and county election officials. And that communication has been improving markedly over the past three years.

In Hennepin County, for instance, Elections Manager Rachel Smith established a hot line last November for election judges. If there were a question about a suspected felon voter, the judges could call a probation officer on the hot line to check their rosters against voting rosters. That makes sense.

Meanwhile, rather than Voter ID bills, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association is supporting legislation to define and fend off the problem of some felons trying to vote.

Under this proposal, county corrections officials would clearly notify convicted felons 18 weeks before Election Day if they are eligible or ineligible to vote. This proposed bill would require corrections officials to notify the Secretary of State’s Office, too, so there’s coordination on voter lists. There would be a requirement that the Secretary of State’s Office report each year to the Legislature on the success of felon voter monitoring. The methods and “best practices” by the counties to inform felons must be established by January 2012.

Other states
The final effort to get a Voter ID bill passed in Minnesota comes on the heels of a decision by Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted to oppose his GOP colleagues in the Ohio Legislature who wanted to introduce Voter ID.

He’s not a big believer in the reality of voter impersonation.

“I believe that if you have a government-issued check, a utility bill in your name with your address on it, that no one made that up,” Husted told reporters recently. “They didn’t call [American Electric Power] and establish utilities in their name to commit voter fraud.”

Then, there’s a shocking case in Indiana, where Voter ID is in force. Indiana’s Voter ID law went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was upheld.

As it turns out, Indiana’s Republican Secretary of State Charlie White, who ran for office on a platform that supported the state’s Voter ID law, was indicted last month on seven charges, including — you guessed it — voter fraud.

He voted in a precinct where he wasn’t living. When White voted, he showed his voter ID card. The mere presence of the card didn’t halt his alleged crime.

He said he didn’t intentionally break the law. He is innocent until proven guilty. Fraud? We’ll know more this summer; his trial begins in August. But a statewide pattern of fraud? Don’t think so.

In terms of catching illegal voting, the system worked, as it has been working in Minnesota for many years.