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Voter ID plan raises many practical questions

Minnesota’s secretary of state’s office is worried about unintended consequences that could result from the proposed constitutional amendment.

GOP Sen. Scott Newman testifying recently before a Senate panel about his proposed constitutional amendment to require a photo ID at the polls.

Despite the assurances of Voter ID supporters, the secretary of state’s office remains worried about the many unintended consequences that could result from the proposed constitutional amendment.

Minnesota’s chief election officials are concerned about two key points in the amendment legislation’s updated language:

  • The legal provisions establishing guidelines for absentee and mail-in voting.
  •  And the impact on Election Day registration.

The provisions are unclear enough to effectively end the practices or require expensive workarounds, election officials say.

The amendment could also delay election results in close races for days after the polls close because of new so-called provisional balloting, a federal requirement allowing people who are ineligible to vote because they lack proper documentation to cast a ballot and return later with the correct documentation.

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Minnesota and at least three other states don’t currently use provisional ballots required in the federal Help America Vote Act because they allow same-day registration or don’t require voters to register.

Opponents also say the amendment proposal will disenfranchise at-risk voters — the elderly, the disabled, the poor and students — who are more likely to vote Democrat.

“You have hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans that would be disenfranchised under this Voter ID bill,” DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said in an interview. “We’re very concerned about the effect it would have on the elections of our state.”

But Voter ID supporters, including most GOP lawmakers, say the measure is critical to maintaining the state’s election integrity. They also dismiss concerns over disenfranchisement.

“Absolutely not true,” said state Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, the former secretary of state and House author of the amendment. “It will not disenfranchise anybody.”

How will it work?

There are numerous questions about how a Voter ID system would work.

“I do have a question about what its impact would be on absentee voting, especially for military and overseas voters, and whether this would potentially end absentee voting,” Beth Fraser, the secretary of state’s governmental affairs director, said in an interview.

She said she believes the future of Election Day registration is unclear, even though Republicans have said it’s their intent to preserve the process.

“It would take a lot to have this work,” Fraser said on Feb. 22 after the Senate State Government Innovation and Veterans Committee approved the proposed amendment.

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Because constitutional amendments are broadly worded, GOP Sen. Scott Newman’s bill leaves the details of implementing Voter ID for later. He reiterated that both the fiscal impact and the policy provisions of a Voter ID bill would have to be decided by next year’s Legislature.

If voters approve the measure in November, lawmakers next session would have to figure out how such a system would work and pass a separate law.

And that’s another problem opponents see with the proposal.

“We just accept in good faith that we’re going to figure all this out [next session]?” DFL Sen. Dick Cohen said at the late-February hearing. “That concerns me.”

Those concerns were paramount at a March 1 Senate Finance Committee meeting where the measure passed along party lines.

The secretary of state’s office is also worried about vague language in the proposed amendment that defines the types of identification required for in-person, absentee and mail-in ballots.

Fraser, for example, is concerned about the requirement that the acceptable forms of identity verification have to be “substantially equivalent” across each type of voting.

Legally, she wonders how checking voters’ faces against IDs at the polls could ever be “substantially equivalent” to receiving unknown voters’ mailed-in “government-issued proof of identity.”

“The vagueness of the proposed constitutional amendment is frustrating,” Fraser said. “It’s unclear exactly what the impact would be on the election system and on Minnesota’s voters.”

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The same problems also surfaced for Election Day registration.

Without electronic poll books connected to the Internet at each voting precinct, every same-day registrant – about 500,000 in an average presidential election — would have to vote by provisional ballot, Fraser said.

In an earlier version of the amendment, Newman’s proposal gave voters casting provisional ballots 10 days to return with a photo ID.

“Nobody’s going to know who won any of the elections until at least 10 days or more afterwards,” Fraser said about the requirement. “I know that people are on pins and needles on election night. That feeling is going to last for quite a while if we don’t know for more than 10 days who won anything in Minnesota from governor down to school board.”

And provisional ballots are ineffective, according to Fraser. In a memo to a Senate panel, she wrote that 28 percent of provisional ballots — more than 600,000 nationwide — weren’t counted in 2008. Indiana, a state with a strict Voter ID requirement, only counted 13 percent of provisional ballots issued to voters for lack of ID in that election.

Newman said he has taken the 10-day window out of the proposed amendment because he thought it “would be better to leave that up to the Legislature.”

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie would prefer to see electronic poll books as an alternative to Voter ID. He made a short plug for the proposal at the Feb. 22 hearing, where testimony was limited to the amendment’s cost to the secretary of state’s office.

“I just knew you were going to go there,” committee Chairman Mike Parry said jokingly.

He also posed the solution to the Senate Finance Committee last week because, he said, adding 500,000 ballots into the provisional balloting system could cause additional hang ups.

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Wide range of costs

In addition to its effects on Minnesota’s election system, proposed Voter ID changes would also likely incur significant costs at the state and local levels.

On top of the roughly $100,000 Ritchie estimates it would take to put Voter ID on the ballot, new electronic systems, more training for election judges, plus printing and processing new provisional ballots would all inflate election costs.

Last session, a Voter ID bill that Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed would have appropriated at least $3.79 million to launch a public education campaign and to fund free voter ID cards.

Opponents, however, said the measure is likely to cost much more.

Minnesota Common Cause and Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota released a report last March that said House File 210 – a likely starting point for next year’s Voter ID negotiations – would cost the state $84 million over three years.

“There are going to be great costs involved in any of these proposals,” Fraser said, especially for local election officials, which would likely cause property tax hikes.

Newman pushed off discussion of cost until 2013 because of provisions in his bill that require lawmakers to later iron out the specifics of the proposal.

“We don’t really have any solid fiscal note, and it is speculation,” Senate Finance Chairwoman Claire Robling said before the amendment passed onto the Senate Rules and Administration Committee last week.

People and party

Opponents of Voter ID remind lawmakers that the measure affects more than election officials. It has the potential to severely restrict vulnerable people’s right to vote.

Groups ranging from AARP to TakeAction Minnesota, a liberal activist group, say it will harm at-risk communities.

The secretary of state’s office has identified more than 200,000 registered voters who may not have a photo ID or lack an up-to-date address. More than 200,000 voters who use mail or absentee ballots during presidential elections also could be affected.

Many of these voters are elderly, students, poor or disabled. The U.S. Department of Justice found South Carolina’s Voter ID law discriminatory because minority voters there are 20 percent less likely to have a photo ID, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Liberal political activists also believe Voter ID will hurt get-out-the-vote efforts.

“It would dramatically change how parties and campaigns would have to conduct their business,” said the DFL’s Martin. “We’d be dealing with a new and different way of voting, which is much more prohibitive.”

Pat Shortridge, chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, did not return multiple requests for comment.

About 30 states require an ID at the polls, and half of them require or request a photograph.

Concerns with the process

The Voter ID amendment in Minnesota — loosely based on Indiana’s law — is evolving, leaving opponents and the public scrambling to catch up.

Newman has amended the legislation at least twice. Some lawmakers at the Feb. 22 hearing complainted that limited testimony is preventing the bill from receiving a true public airing.

“This is the State Government Committee, and this is the place to hear this thoroughly,” said Sen. Barb Goodwin, a Democrat from Columbia Heights. “I know there are other people that would like to talk on this bill, and if we’re putting constitutional amendments on the ballot because we want to hear from the people, then let’s start that process, here, in this room.”

DFL members also raised concerns that Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Claire Robling wouldn’t allow sufficient testimony when the amendment came before her panel on March 1.

Republicans said the bill received enough testimony during its first hearing, which lasted about five hours. They also said that recent changes aren’t substantive enough to warrant more public appraisal.

“I’ve simply tried to add language which will put folks’ minds at ease that I’m not trying to eliminate absentee balloting or same-day registration,” Newman said after the Feb. 22 hearing. “I would hope that this will solve the problem.”

The House has not heard Kiffmeyer’s version of the amendment since last session. She re-introduced the measure as a ballot question after Dayton vetoed the bill because it didn’t have broad bipartisan support.

Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci reaffirmed that the governor “believes that any election law needs to be bipartisan.”

Kiffmeyer is working to align her bill with Newman’s.

“I’m just fine with the way it’s going,” Kiffmeyer said of her bill’s progress this session. “We’re moving along just fine.”

Court challenges

Newman said he is confident his amendment’s constitutionality will hold up in court because he based it on Indiana’s successful law.

But acting Indiana Secretary of State Jerry Bonnet offered a word of caution to lawmakers.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Indiana law in 2008 on its face, but it’s still vulnerable to an “as applied” challenge if opponents can bring forward a voter who experienced significant difficulty voting because of the law.

“I don’t take that to mean that the law, any type of Photo ID law in any state, is going to pass muster,” Bonnet said. “It depends on what provisions they make to deal with people who have difficulty [voting].

“It’s going to be challenged, I think, in other states,” he added.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least six states – including Indiana – have been in litigation over Voter ID.

Carolyn Jackson, lobbying coordinator for the ACLU of Minnesota, said Newman’s bill opens the state up to a “cottage industry” of voting lawsuits.

“This is not a matter which is settled law,” she said. “There will be lawsuits.”

Political theatrics

Along with dire predictions of voter fraud and the ruin of Minnesota’s election system, advocates and opponents of Voter ID have laid on the theatrics to emphasize their points since the session began.

TakeAction Minnesota attempted to tie money from banking executives to lawmakers who supported the measure, but under questioning from reporters, Executive Director Dan McGrath had to back off his claim that the leaders of Minnesota’s largest banks had a specific Voter ID agenda.

The American Civil Liberties Union in mid-February offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could find a case of voter impersonation fraud over the past decade that might have been stopped with a Voter ID law.

GOP lawmakers and such groups as Minnesota Majority have challenged opponents to bring forward even one person who would actually be disenfranchised by the measure.

Conflict also erupted recently when TakeAction and several DFL lawmakers condemned as racist a pro-Voter ID website maintained by Minnesota Majority.

It featured a black man dressed in prison grab to depict a felon voter and a man dressed as a mariachi to portray an illegal immigrant.

“These images are racial-profiling of voters at its ugliest, designed to drive fear and racial division throughout Minnesota in order to help pass a photo ID amendment at the Legislature and on the fall ballot,” TakeAction’s McGrath said in a statement. “They’re wrong and they should be removed from public view immediately.”

Later that day, someone slightly revised the images and added a caption that read: “Politically Correct Version for the Hypersensitive.”

But all the emotional responses raise the question: Does this issue really deserve all the attention?

Not according to Humphrey School of Public Affairs elections expert Doug Chapin, who said both political parties are spending too much time worrying about the potential causes and effects of Voter ID.

“Frequently, Voter ID ends up consuming all the air in the room, a lot of which might be better spent on other things,” he said.