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Proposed Voter ID amendment faces vocal opposition

Senate committee members bickered with each other and, on occasion, with the public.

Sen. Scott Newman takes notes during a Wednesday committee hearing for his proposed constitutional amendment requiring a photo ID to vote.

It was a theatrical — and lengthy — first hearing Wednesday for a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a photo ID to vote.

Members of the Senate Government and Local Elections Committee bickered with each other and, on occasion, with those testifying about the measure. Then, after hearing about five hours of testimony, the committee decided to table the bill until a later date.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson brought the amendment to the committee, defending the measure as necessary to maintain election integrity in Minnesota.

“I fully recognize that there are many people in this room that will not agree with me,” he said. “Nevertheless, I think it’s a good idea.”

And disagree, they did.

About 30 opponents spoke against the legislation citing many of the arguments from last session’s debate. The key one: The Voter ID move would disenfranchise voters, particularly the elderly, the disabled, students and the poor.

Organizations ranging from AARP to the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless argued against the amendment, which, if approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature, would bypass the governor and be placed on the November ballot.

Despite the broad opposition, it’s likely the amendment will pass through both chambers, Senate Deputy Majority Leader Julianne Ortman had told reporters last Friday.

“I would say, ‘Very receptive,’ ” she said of legislators’ mind set. “I think it’s got a great chance of passing the Senate because we already passed the bill.”

Opponents outlined a wide array of objections, from tje philosophical to the practical.

“The proposed constitutional amendment transforms voting from a right to a privilege,” said Beth Fraser, a Minnesota Secretary of State staffer. “This proposal is simply a bad idea.”

It’s often difficult for immigrants, the poor and the elderly to maintain and renew state IDs, effectively removing them from the eligible voting pool, opponents said. At least two immigrants spoke in opposition to the amendment, including Sadik Warfa of the Somali Action Alliance.

“Requiring a photo ID to vote will discourage a lot of members of my community to vote, Warfa said. “We want to make sure that all of us participate in the election process.”

More than 215,000 registered voters in the state may not have a driver’s license or ID, or may live at a different address than what is displayed on their card, according to Secretary of State data. Those people would not be allowed to vote without securing a proper ID, which is not currently required.

The language in Newman’s amendment specifies that the state would provide special IDs for free, but opponents wondered how much it would cost to get copies of the supporting documents, such as birth certificates, needed to verify a person’s identity.

They also criticized the amendment’s vague wording.. If the measure passes in November, Newman expects the Legislature to turn a more specific set of recommendations into statute next session to complement the amendment.

He left much of the proposal’s details up to next session’s lawmakers, which angered some members of the committee looking for specifics — how much the plan would cost and how it would be implemented, among others.

There’s also the problem of coming together on a solution, because the specific guidelines about how a voter ID program would operate have to be signed by Dayton, who vetoed similar legislation last session.

If Dayton and lawmakers fail to reach a deal, it’s unclear how the amendment’s broad strokes — lacking specific mechanisms of action — would affect voting in Minnesota.

But Newman isn’t worried.

“I would anticipate that the Legislature, the elected senators and representatives, would take their responsibility very seriously, and they, together with the governor, would enact the legislation that the voters in the state of Minnesota have mandated,” he said.

Dayton administration spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci wrote in an email that it’s too early to tell what might happen next session, but she reiterated that the governor is still insisting on broad bipartisan support for any voter ID legislation.

This measure, at least, appears to lack that support.

DFL Sens. Kenneth Kelash, Mary Jo McGuire and Katie Sieben strongly objected to the measure, and were outspoken when advocates came forward.

“Your solution is way worse than the problem you are trying to solve,” Kelash told one testifier, which prompted Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain, who sits on the committee, to warn Kelash to be civil with the audience.

McGuire also brought up a different point, to which Committee Chairman Ray Vandeveer responded, “Pretty desperate, Sen. McGuire.”

The DFL senators also grilled Dan McGrath, the executive director of Minnesota Majority, on some of the figures he used in defense of a voter ID program.

McGrath said that supporters of the amendment had to be at work, and that’s why they hadn’t filled the committee chamber.

At the meeting’s four-hour mark, staffers had to change the tapes to ensure the entire meeting was on record. McGrath’s remark prompted Jeff Johnson, a veteran, to lean forward to McGrath during the break and ask, “Am I a deadbeat” for coming to the hearing?

After a quiet exchange, Johnson stood up, put on his hat and walked out, saying, “This is the last time I come to the Legislature.”