A Republican-backed constitutional amendment to require Minnesotans show photo identification when they vote has moved closer to a spot on the statewide ballot.
Many unanswered questions remain about the looming changes in state election law. A debate by the House Rules Committee today highlighted the deep and sometimes bitter partisan divide over the issue.
The rules committee was the last stop for the voter ID bill before a yet-to-be-scheduled House floor vote. Its focus was supposed to be limited to the form and structure of the proposed ballot question, but the discussion quickly expanded to the broader merits of the bill.
State Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, urged Republicans to hold off on changing the state constitution. Norton suggested that they instead consider a legislative proposal from Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to make use of electronic poll book technology to determine voter eligibility.
"There is an opportunity to have an alternative bill, not messing with our state's constitution, but a statutory change that will address some of the concerns on your side of the aisle, some of the concerns that some of my voters have, and in a way that doesn't disenfranchise voters," Norton said.
But the effort to forge a bipartisan voter ID compromise hasn't gained much traction. After Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a voter ID bill last session, Republicans have made it a priority to take the issue to voters this fall. Dayton cannot veto a constitutional amendment.
State Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, a sponsor of the constitutional amendment bill, argued that the Ritchie proposal is an inadequate alternative. Kiffmeyer, who previously served as secretary of state, said the ID requirement won't prevent anyone from voting.
"This constitutional amendment allows for same-day registration, allows for absentee voting, allows for mail balloting, gives the necessary flexibility to vote for every eligible voter with Minnesota's current law," Kiffmeyer said. "And I think that this exactly does allow every one of those things, and does and will not disenfranchise a single voter."
Kiffmeyer's bill requires the state to issue free photo identification to all eligible voters, and establishes a new provisional ballot process for voters who show up without their ID. If voters approve the amendment, it will be up to the next Legislature to work out the details of the new system.
Democrats on the committee objected to a phrase in Kiffmeyer's bill that all voters would be subject to "substantially equivalent eligibility verification." They claimed that wording could disenfranchise absentee voters or military personnel, and could end up being challenged in court.
The mood of the hearing grew unusually tense, particularly when House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, ended the debate and called for a vote. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, urged Dean not to cut off the discussion.
"Representative Thissen, we've been discussing this amendment for 45 minutes," Dean said.
Thissen later told Dean that he thought it was interesting that he was suppressing debate on a measure to suppress voting.
This session has been a relatively easy journey for the voter ID issue. There were two previous hearings for the House bill. The Senate bill is getting a little more attention, but the public testimony in both bodies has been dominated by opponents. Only a handful of supporters have shown up.
Still, state Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said she is convinced the public wants voter ID.
"When the governor vetoed that bill, that's why we brought it back for this constitutional amendment," Ortman said. "I think that you should look at it as a two-year process and look at all the support and the folks that were visibly here, present and very vocal over the last two years."
Ortman and other members of Senate rules committee will take up the voter ID bill on Friday. It could reach the Senate floor as soon as next week.