A photo identification requirement to vote in Minnesota is a contentious issue that could again surface as a newly formed state task force launches a study of electronic poll book technology.
Part of the research will look at the use of photographs as a way to verify voter eligibility. Last fall, Minnesota voters turned down a Republican-backed proposed constitutional amendment to require photo identification at election polls. The task force meets for the first time Tuesday.
Electronic poll books are a computer-based alternative to the paper rosters that voters currently sign their name to at polling places on Election Day. Instead of signing in, a voter's driver's license or some other identification is swiped by a card reader, and their pre-loaded information is displayed on a computer monitor. The city of Minnetonka tested such technology in recent elections and City Clerk David Maeda said he was pleased with the results.
"The feedback from my election judges is just all positive. They really thought this was something that helped them do their jobs better," Maeda said. "And in some cases, I don't think in all cases, but in some cases it reduced the time people had to wait in line."
Under the omnibus elections bill that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law in May, Minnetonka and four other cities will participate in an electronic roster pilot project during this fall's municipal elections. The law established the 15-member task force that in the upcoming months will study electronic rosters, including the ability to use photographs provided by the Department of Vehicle Services and the ability to add photographs to the roster on Election Day.
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who is a member of the task force and the chief author of the electronic roster section of the law, opposed the voter ID amendment because of what she viewed as its technology limitations. She said her legislation was a result of that debate and could open the door to another form of voter identification.
"I felt as though, when that conversation was taking place, this was a better direction to go. So, if you recall Gov. Carlson when he did those TV commercials where he spoke against the constitutional amendment, he said send it back to the Legislature and have them do this legislatively," Bonoff said. "This is in response to the commitments that some of us made and our belief that it is appropriate to have a voter verification system."
Bonoff said she believes voter ID opponents did not push back against the provision because it only requires a study. She said that could change if the task force returns with a photo identification recommendation.
Task force member Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, was one of the key proponents of voter ID last year. She said electronic rosters could add more integrity to the election system, but not as much as she wanted under the proposed amendment.
"This is one piece of it, and I understand in the world of governing and politics and other things that sometimes just taking one step closer is a good thing. As long as we're making progress, I'm glad to move forward and work with the task force to make that progress."
But some opponents of voter ID reject Kiffmeyer's idea of progress.
"We've been there. We've done that. We put it to the voters and asked them if a photo ID should be required to vote, and they said no," said Dan McGrath, executive director of Take Action Minnesota, the group that led the statewide campaign to defeat last year's proposed constitutional amendment.
McGrath said he supports efforts to improve the administration of the election system with new technology, but that he remains firmly opposed to any photo identification requirement and will fight against it again if necessary.
"The reason why the photo ID amendment was defeated is because it was too costly, too complicated and it had far too many unintended consequences that would have left hundreds of thousands of voters unable to participate," McGrath said. "I think that same standard should be applied to any sort of thinking about any future photo ID requirements. It's simply not necessary."
The task force will report early next year on its findings, along with recommendations for a statewide implementation of electronic rosters.