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With final passage, fate of Photo ID constitutional amendment will be up to voters

The state Senate passed the GOP-backed measure 35 to 29 Wednesday afternoon, just hours after the House approved it on a party-line vote.

Sen. Scott Newman talks with Sen. John Howe, who has tried unsuccessfully to broaden acceptable Photo ID language.

It’s now up to Minnesota’s voters to decide if a photo ID should be required at the polls.

The state Senate passed the Republican-backed constitutional amendment 35 to 29 Wednesday afternoon, just hours after the House approved it on a party-line vote.

Passage now requires support from a majority of voters in the November general election. If passed, it would take effect in 2013 and would require legislative action to work out how to implement the measure.

The Senate vote concludes a lengthy political process and represents a major victory for Republican lawmakers who had made the Photo ID measure a key part of their agenda this session.

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“This is a very, very important bill,” Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem said in support of the legislation. “This is a very significant bill for the state of Minnesota.”

Photo ID faces steep opposition from DFL lawmakers and liberal activists, many of whom voiced their concerns throughout the months-long process that took Photo ID from committee to the ballot.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and his office have opposed the measure both on logistical grounds and because, they argue, it would severely change fundamental aspects of Minnesota’s voting system, including absentee balloting procedures. Specifically, he has said the measure would, in effect, do away with Election Day registration, which has been used by more than 500,000 voters.

Ritchie addressed reporters after the amendment’s passage to explain again his opposition.

Republicans counter that requiring a photo ID at the polls is a common-sense move that improves Minnesota’s election system and protects its integrity. They deny any partisan political intent in pushing the measure.

“This bill … takes that integrity one step further,” Senjem said. “We certainly would never want to disenfranchise anyone. At the same time, I think that we would all fight and die for the integrity of our voting system, and many people have, as we all well know.”

From the start, the amendment’s passage seemed inevitable with Republicans controlling both houses. Democrats vigorously opposed it throughout — from committee hearings to the floor — and Wednesday’s three-hour Senate debate was no different.

DFL opponents raised concerns that Photo ID would disenfranchise elderly, student, disabled and minority voters. They also questioned the constitutionality of a Photo ID requirement, noting that several lawsuits are likely to be filed.

Still, DFL concerns didn’t stop Sen. Scott Newman, the bill’s chief Senate author, from celebrating after the Photo ID measure passed.

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“Candidly, I’m very, very happy,” he told reporters after the floor vote. “I think that today was a great day for Minnesota, and it’s a win-win for the voters of the state of Minnesota.”

The amendment passed in the Senate along party lines, too, with one GOP “no” vote from freshman Sen. Jeremy Miller.

Some Republicans and nearly every Democrat have expressed concern about the measure’s language, which requires voters to submit a “government-issued photographic identification” — which, they say, doesn’t offer much leeway for interpretation.

Republicans argue that the measure requires the government to provide a free ID to voters who now lack acceptable identification.

DFLers in the Senate hammered away at other language that requires “substantially equivalent and identity verification” for different types of voting, echoing Ritchie’s concerns about its impact on Election Day registration.

“I think it’s hard to make these kinds of conversations logical,” Ritchie said, referring to the people and election systems the amendment could harm. “I think it’s very broad who it will affect.”

Along with Photo ID comes provisional balloting, a practice that Republicans would like to use to replace the current Election Day system that allows a registered voter at the polls to vouch for the identify of an unregistered voter.

 Under the new system, if a voter doesn’t have the correct identification, he or she could vote provisionally and then present valid ID later.

But Ritchie and Democrats criticized provisional balloting as a vast new bureaucracy that elections officials would have to navigate. DFLers also questioned the equity and precedent that the amendment set.

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“We’ve been a beacon for the rest of the country, a shining light for folks who are trying to expand that promise, that vision, that hope, that our country and its 50 states represent,” DFL Sen. Scott Dibble said. “Members, please vote red. This is your legacy.”

The Democrats’ one hope to expand the acceptable types of ID that a voter could submit died with a proposal from GOP Sen. John Howe.

When the Senate first passed the Photo ID measure, it included language that allowed voters to present “government-issued photographic identification” or an “equivalent.” Howe said his language gave future lawmakers more leeway to write the measure’s enacting legislation.

Howe’s amendment passed 63 to 3 at the time, which Democrats argued was a strong Senate opinion that should have been fought for in conference committee.

But when the conference committee convened on Monday, Newman and House author Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer already had worked out in private a compromise that didn’t include the Howe provision.

Howe voted with Democrats on Wednesday in an attempt to send the bill back to conference committee, but it failed along near party lines.

“We have an official Senate position on Sen. Howe’s amendment which evaporated in conference committee,” DFL Sen. Ron Latz said. “The Senate got rolled. The Senate got rolled by the House. We ought to be embarrassed.”

Although Howe had previously been critical of Republicans for not adopting his changes, he spoke in favor of the bill on Wednesday.

“I’m going to respect the process we have here today, and I’m going to support House File 2738,” he said.