A House committee approved a bill Thursday that would require people to show a photo ID before they can vote, and with Republicans in control in the Legislature, the bill has a stronger chance of passing than in years past.
Despite Republicans in the Minnesota House and Senate looking at significant spending cuts to erase the state's $5 billion projected budget deficit, the voter ID bill appears to be one area where they're willing to spend more money.
A fiscal analysis says it will cost the state roughly $5 million over the next two years. Democrats say that's too expensive as lawmakers grapple with a $5 billion projected budget deficit. They also say local elections officials would be forced to spend millions more to implement the new system.
The bill has been debated at the State Capitol for years, but Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, former Secretary of State, said the bill is needed to ensure the integrity of the voting system.
"The counting of the ballots at the end, and doing a good job there, doesn't mean we're doing a good job in voter registration where we have no ID," Kiffmeyer said.
While Kiffmeyer and Republicans argue that photo ID at the polls will improve the system, Democrats say it's a solution in search of a problem. Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, argues that a photo ID requirement would discourage voting. He said senior citizens, the disabled and women living in battered women's shelters would be penalized under a photo ID requirement.
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"So you're creating challenges for these people to vote without any sign, any evidence, [and] any information whatsoever that these groups are somehow voting illegally," Winkler said.
In response to the fiscal question raised by Democrats, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, and the chief author of the bill in the Senate, argued that the bill is worth the cost.
"As you know, the backdrop of this legislative session is that we're a little tight on money, but I think that being tight on money shouldn't necessarily be the impediment to every idea that we consider in the Legislature," Limmer said.
Limmer said that photo ID at the pollis is the number one issue when it comes to elections to the state. The Senate also approved its photo ID bill this week.
The hearings over the bills in both houses have been somewhat technical in nature but also included passionate debate. Andy Cilek, with the conservative group Minnesota Voter's Alliance, said he was dismayed that anyone would suggest that the effort is meant to discourage voting.
"I don't know anyone who's behind this who's trying to create intentional barriers. I take offense to that," Cilek said. "I believe this is an intentional move to create barriers for illegal voters."
But other testimony came from some election judges and poll challengers who expressed concerns about voters who spoke broken English or looked much younger than their date of births.
"We're going to do away with all of the things that make Minnesota great and create more barriers ... and to me that's not Minnesota," said Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth. "To question somebody because they may have been speaking Spanish, to me, seems like Mississippi burning."
Gov. Dayton has expressed concerns about the bills, but hasn't said he would veto them. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, said Dayton should be skeptical of any election bills that have support from only one political party.
"I certainly expect that Gov. Dayton will have the same point of view as our prior governors," Ritchie said. "Election law change should come to the desk of the governor deeply and broadly supported [by] both sides of the aisle in both houses of the Legislature."
A veto by Dayton may not settle the matter. Rep. Kiffmeyer said she intends to put the issue to the voters in the form of a constitutional amendment if Dayton vetoes the bill.
The bill moves on to the House Transportation Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee before a possible vote in the Legislature.