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Foes did ‘the unthinkable’ in stopping the voting amendment

Despite enjoying 80 percent public support at one point, advocates ended up losing a battle where they were substantially outfunded and outmanned.

Dan McGrath: "One of the first jobs we had was to convince ourselves we could win this thing."
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

Voting amendment opponents carved out a solid victory at the polls on Tuesday that would have been nearly unthinkable just months ago.

Advocates of requiring citizens to show a photo ID to vote ended up losing a battle where they were substantially outfunded and outmanned, despite enjoying 80 percent public support for the measure in May 2011.

Now proponents — seemingly invincible for so long — have vowed to return to the Legislature to continue working on election changes like the voting amendment, but it’s unlikely they’ll get far.

Democrats took back both the House and Senate, denying the partisan Republican-backed measure a legislative route.

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With only 46 percent support, voters shut down an amendment that once seem inevitable, falling far short of polling expectations and preventing any “mandate” pro-amendment groups like Protect My Vote felt they had leading into election season.

Different party moods

Dan McGrath, who directed Protect My Vote, led a sullen Election Night party at O’Gara’s Bar and Grill in St. Paul. The party emptied of most supporters long before election results had trickled in for either constitutional amendment, and neither of the ballot question’s legislative sponsors showed up for the festivities.

“It looks pretty unlikely that this is going to turn around to a victory for Voter ID this time around, so we’re going to keep pressing forward for improved election integrity in our system,” McGrath told a group of reporters at the party before the amendment had been called.

“We’re going to the Legislature. We’re going to try to find some solutions that Gov. Dayton can sign that will give us greater transparency and integrity in elections.”

But it’s unlikely those two sides will meet in agreement. Dayton vetoed Photo ID legislation in 2011 and symbolically vetoed the constitutional amendment that bypassed his desk in 2012.

On Tuesday, he called the voting amendment — which many opponents saw as a threat to same-day registration and absentee and military voting — “an attempt to hijack the 2014 election by the Republican Party.”

Dayton and other DFL lawmakers, such as Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, addressed a nearly empty room at the beginning of the “vote no” party, but the “no” vote margin remained steady as the crowd swelled. Those lawmakers said a come-from-behind victory would be “Wellstonian” and a true tribute to grass-roots organizing.

By the time Our Vote Our Future, a coalition of more than 80 groups, claimed tentative victory just before 2 a.m. on Wednesday, only a small group of supporters remained.

They credited the unlikely victory to a massive organizing campaign across a broad coalition of organizations, such as progressive organizing heavyweight Take Action Minnesota. Cheers of “This is what democracy looks like!” boomed in a ballroom at the St. Paul RiverCentre.

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“When people said we couldn’t, you said, ‘Yes we can!’” Luchelle Stevens, the opposition’s campaign manager, told the cheering crowd. “Against all odds, we did.”

Slow, steady effort

The other Dan McGrath, executive director of Take Action, used to make the leaders of the anti-amendment campaign go around the room and give a reason for why they would prevail in what was initially a largely unpopular fight.

“One of the first jobs we had was to convince ourselves we could win this thing,” McGrath said during an interview in mid-October. “That was really hard, but slowly, steadily things started to work.”

The self-deprecation that teetered on half-optimism he exhibited there wasn’t apparent early Wednesday morning when he took the stage, claimed victory and screamed, “We did it!”

McGrath and his allies weren’t even in a relatively comfortable position until the campaign’s final days. Polling slowly began to validate the opposition groups’ campaign strategy: Talk to as many voters as possible up to Election Day to outline potential problems with the amendment to erode its “soft” support.

“Every single night, every single person who comes in to do a phone bank is changing someone’s mind,” Robyn Skrebes, an organizer with the coalition, said during an October Take Action phone bank. Election Night three weeks later found Skrebes hugging a friend, yelling, “We crushed it!”

While in bill form in 2011, a Star Tribune poll found 80 percent public support for requiring a photo ID at the polls and strong backing among citizens aligned with the Democrats. It appeared to many to be a common-sense issue.

But after the amendment passed the Legislature in 2012, organizers gathered up the groups that opposed the measure in legislative hearings and began campaigning against it as a ballot question committee. They attracted such strong, nonpartisan partners as the AARP and the League of Women Voters.

They questioned how much the voting amendment would cost to implement, estimated how many voters could be affected and inconvenienced and insisted that it could end Election Day registration as we know it. They also relentlessly pushed back against allegations of voter fraud in Minnesota.

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By mid-October, the campaign had contacted hundreds of thousands of voters through phone banks and door-knocking. They had staged huge get-out-the-vote efforts and established a ground game of volunteers that worked thousands of shifts contacting prospective voters. They had raised more than $2.5 million in cash and in-kind donations and partnered with former Vice President Walter Mondale and former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson.

Support for the amendment began to ebb. In June, a report from Public Policy Polling showed the voting amendment with a 24-point lead. It had dropped to 17 points by September and slumped again in October. Two days before Election Day, the amendment was considered a dead heat.

“We needed to play near flawlessly to compete, and I think we did,” McGrath said after the victory. “I think, you know, the other side thought they had this in the bag with an 80 percent hold. They didn’t.”

McGrath of Protect My Vote said there were few partners to be had early in the process and said that it would have been impossible to woo labor unions and progressive organizers already working with the anti-amendment forces.

The pro-amendment forces, which consisted of about eight full time staffers plus volunteers, didn’t wage a grassroots campaign, McGrath said. Instead, they focused on media messaging designed to counteract their opponents’ “smear campaign.”

Lack of funding was the biggest reason the campaign failed, he said.

Roughly $1.3 million dollars of the group’s $1.5 million campaign chest came from Joan Cummins, wife of conservative donor Bob Cummins. Much of it flooded in less than a month before Election Day. 

“We got outspent in a huge way,” McGrath said.

McGrath also criticized donors who refused to contribute to the cause because they thought the amendment would inevitably pass.

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“I really appreciate what the Cummins have done for the campaign, because, as I said, a lot of the other people that we attempted to call on for donations just said, ‘Eh, no big deal, it’s going to pass, we don’t need to spend any money on it,’” he said. “Maybe next time around these donors that decided to sit on their hands will realize, ‘Yeah, it is important.’ Even if you’ve got strong support going in, you’ve still got to defend that support.”

But another constitutional amendment campaign isn’t likely, at least, according to McGrath. He reaffirmed that working with the Legislature and the governor are on the agenda for session 2013.

Looking to other efforts

But with Dayton as governor and DFL majorities in the Legislature, McGrath conceded that a strict photo ID requirement like the one described in the failed constitutional amendment isn’t likely to pass.

“To my mind, it’s the first time that I know of that voter ID’s been put to the voters and defeated,” said Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota.

Still, McGrath said it’s critical to work with lawmakers to pass many of the same reforms included in the amendment to ensure that voters are treated equally and to prevent fraud.

“There was going to be a bill for election reform with or without the amendment,” he said. “We’re going to go forward with pressing for greater integrity and transparency in the system.”

The bill McGrath referred to is known as “enabling legislation,” which would have needed the governor’s approval to fully implement the amendment. Without that agreement, a long legal battle could have been required to define the amendment’s specific provisions.

The measure already faced two state Supreme Court lawsuits over the summer.

Republican Mary Kiffmeyer, the amendment’s chief House author who was elected to the state Senate on Tuesday, said she plans to work with Democrats to push for a “Photo ID statutory bill that we can move forward on and agree to.”

Kiffmeyer said if Dayton is true to his word to “send it back to the Legislature and fix it,” then there should be common ground to resolve differences that separate the parties on the ID issue.

 She said the legislative process could work out those differences, but stressed that election mechanisms like vouching and ID-free voting are out of touch with many Minnesotans. She also reaffirmed that she wouldn’t stray from her core principles while working to find a compromise with the governor.

“Why would I be hypocritical and now abandon the things I talked so strongly about before?” she said. “Wouldn’t it be silly of me to do that?”

Chapin said even without a “pro-ID majority” in the Legislature, there are plenty of bipartisan mechanisms for improving elections. About a dozen states have implemented online voter registration, he said, and others have allowed data sharing that transfers voting eligibility as people move.

“I would hope that rather than continue to fight … that this would be an opportunity for the parties to think a little bit bigger.”