Voter ID bill stirs debate in committee hearing

Kirubel Zeleke
In this file photo from Nov. 2, 2010, Kirubel Zeleke fills out a new voter registration form at a precinct in St. Paul.
MPR file photo/Nate Ryan

Two bills that would require Minnesotans to show a photo ID before they can vote got their first formal airings at the Capitol Thursday. A House panel heard advocates say it would be a basic protection against vote fraud. But others said it would keep people away from the polls.

Minnesotans are used to showing an ID to buy beer, to cash a check or even buy a box of cold medicine. Even high school students who take the ACT test have to prove who they are before they fill in the ovals.

State Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, said the process of deciding who runs government should be held to the same standard.

"We need our elections to be seen as free and fair. And in order to do that, we need to have the processes in place to assure that each vote is tied to an actual individual who lives in a particular place. And this can all be verified by a secure form of photo ID," said Benson.

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He urged his colleagues to have Minnesota join the eight other states that now check voter IDs at the polls.

But opponents said any more barriers to the ballot box risked one of Minnesotans most sacred rights, without any real benefit.

Kathy Bonnifield is associate director of a group called Citizens for Election Integrity of Minnesota.

She offered a report to the House Governmnent Operations and Elections Committee that said a poll of county attorneys in November found just seven suspected incidents of voter impersonation among nearly three million votes cast in 2008 -- an no convictions.

She said a study by the New York University School of Law looked at the same issue.

"It identified that someone was more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than to commit the type of fraud that the photo ID requirement would prevent," she said.

Bonnifield was one of two dozen people who argued either side of the issue at its first public hearing at the Capitol.

Some said it wasn't practical for people like elderly nursing home residents to get their picture taken and apply for a photo ID.

Others were college students who said their transient lifestyle already makes it difficult to prove residency, a key element of voter eligibility.

Teresa Nelson, attorney for the Minnesota ACLU, said the measure would unfairly impact minorities, like Indian tribes, and people with low incomes.

"Supporters of Jim Crow justified their voter suppression laws as equal treatment for all voters," said Nelson. "We urge you not to follow the rumors of blogs or the manufactured fear of fraud yet to come, and vote 'no' on this voter suppression bill."

But supporters of the photo ID requirement said it was fair, and that many voters already expect to identify themselves at the polls.

Voter ID advocate Andy Cilek said he thought the right to vote should carry some minimum obligation to ensure the integrity of the process.

"We have people in other countries -- Iraq, Afghanistan -- under fire, who don't know if they're going to live through the night, and we have college students that can't get a photo ID to vote. It's just something doesn't sit right with me," said Cilek.

The committee is expected to take more testimony and could vote on the measure next week.