Legislators contentious over Voter ID

Caucus straw polls
Henry Stachyra Jr. waits for caucus participants at Rutherford Elementary School in Stillwater, Minn. Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. A voter identification scanning systems was being tested at the Stillwater site.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Several groups are ramping up opposition to a constitutional amendment that would require Minnesotans to present a photo identification to vote.

GOP legislative leaders say they want to put the issue to voters this fall.

It's an issue gaining momentum across the country. There are 15 states that require people show a photo ID to vote and another 26 states with legislation to create voter ID laws or strengthen them.

Mississippi passed voter ID via constitutional amendment last year, but that state's law requires approval by the U.S. Department of Justice before it can take effect. The Justice Department last month rejected a new South Carolina law that requires people to show government-issued photographic identification when they vote in person.

Groups representing minorities, seniors, disabled people and others hope to convince Minnesota lawmakers to stop it here.

Supporters of the Photo ID legislation say the measure is a simple way to ensure that voters are eligible and are who they say they are.

Many, like Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, Minn., suggest that photo identification is required for all parts of daily life. He believes most people would want the same standard with voting.

Caucus straw polls
Caucus participants check in using a voter identification scanning system at Rutherford Elementary School in Stillwater, Minn. Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"They really want integrity in the voting system. There is simply, in my estimation, no problem whatsoever in going forward with a voter identification system in this day and age. Everybody has identification on them."


But not everyone agrees. DFL Congressman Keith Ellison appeared at a Monday news conference with advocates for college students, disabled people, immigrant groups and senior citizens to voice opposition.

"What we're really up against is the prevailing idea that so many of us have that 'Oh, everybody has an ID.' Everybody doesn't have an ID," Ellison said. "But the people who don't have them are just as American as anyone of us and they should be allowed to vote."

Rep. Keith Ellison
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., center, is a vocal opponent of a proposed amendment to the state constitution requiring voters to produce identification at polls.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Ellison argues that some people may be prevented from voting even though they have the right to do so. For example, the Minnesota Secretary of State's office said roughly 215,000 people who voted in the last election don't have photo identification or have a driver's license with outdated information. The office also said the 500,000 people who registered to vote on Election Day would not be eligible to vote under the requirement. Ellison believes supporters of the amendment are working to suppress voters who typically support Democrats.

"This is truly a solution in search of a problem," Ellison said. "The real solution that they're looking for is to try to alter the outcome of an election by excluding legitimate, eligible Minnesota voters."

Groups who oppose Voter ID have been getting more active in recent weeks. They packed a Senate Committee hearing and have organized news conferences each day this week.

Celester Webb, with the Churches of God and Christ, said his 84-year-old mother would have difficulty obtaining a government-issued ID because she doesn't have a birth certificate. Webb said that for some the proposal could turn the clock back to before the Voting Rights Act was enacted in the 1960s.

"We call that generation the greatest generation America has ever seen," Webb said. "What a tragedy it would be for her to try to go vote and because she does not have ID as this bill would require, she would be turned away just as she was when she lived in Mississippi."

Webb and others say the only instances of voter fraud recently reported in Minnesota have involved felons voting when they shouldn't have.

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, Minn., worries about those fraudulent voters who aren't getting caught.

"How do you know that someone standing in front of you as an election judge, who they are without a photo ID requirement," Kiffmeyer said. "How do you know they're not impersonating?"

When pressed further, Kiffmeyer did not produce any specifics to document her allegation.


Caucus straw polls
A driver's license is scanned at caucus attendees check in at Rutherford Elementary School in Stillwater, Minn. Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. The voter identification system was being tested in Stillwater.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

At a Republican caucus event in Stillwater, Minn., Tuesday evening, voters presented their driver's licenses to be scanned as verification of identification. The scanner, which cost roughly $50, collected the information of the 187 people in attendance. The information obtained instantly determined the precinct each attendee resides in.

House Majority Leader Matt Dean said he believes the caucus night demonstration shows that the system works.

"It is also a good way to generate the discussion about photo ID for voting which a lot of people here are very interested in," Dean said.

It is uncertain when the legislation will surface at the Capitol. A Senate Committee delayed a vote on the bill last week and has not yet scheduled another hearing.