Voter ID compromise could avert amendment fight

Mark Ritchie
St. Paul Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie holds up a computer to show its size while giving a presentation about the possible use of an electronic voter ID system at a State Government Finance meeting Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. The system would give poll workers the ability to verify a voter's identity using a government-issued ID, such as a driver's license.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

A bipartisan bill to protect the integrity of Minnesota's elections would create a new voter verification system without requiring photo identification cards or changing the state constitution.

Republican lawmakers are weighing the compromise to address criticism of the proposed constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide if Minnesotans should show a photo ID at the polls. Legislators also are uncertain about the makeup of the next Legislature, which would have to fill in the details should voters approve the amendment.

The proposed legislative fix of state election law would incorporate "electronic poll books," technology that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has advocated as a less-expensive alternative to a state-issued voter ID card.

Ritchie, a Democrat, appeared recently before a Senate subcommittee to discuss the benefits of the system, which would allow election officials to look up existing drivers' license photos or to take new photos of each voter up at the polling place.

"It doesn't disrupt absentee voting, or voting by service personnel overseas," he said. "It doesn't disrupt our voter registration system, our same-day registration system. It doesn't disenfranchise anybody."

Republicans in the House and Senate passed a voter ID requirement last year, but Dayton vetoed it. State Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, a sponsor of last year's bill, said he has been working with the governor and the secretary of state this session on an updated version. Howe said electronic poll books would help achieve the goal of proper voter identification.

"I can't speak to whether this does anything on the constitutional amendment for photo ID," Howe said. "But I can tell you that I personally, along with many of my colleagues, want to see things done as much as we can legislatively."

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

Howe said a legislative fix leaves fewer loose ends. Supporters of the constitutional amendment have said the Legislature would still have to take up enabling legislation in 2013 to work out the details of the system if voters approve the ballot question this fall.

It also gives an option to lawmakers who just don't like tinkering with the constitution. State Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said he agrees with the concept of a voter ID requirement, but he wants it done in a bipartisan manner, and through legislation.

"I would prefer to do it this year while we're here, while I know I'm here," Miller said. "We don't know what the makeup of the Legislature will be next year. So, I'd much rather be part of that process to fix the problem, if there is one, and just bring voter integrity to our elections. I think it's important."

The compromise bill still isn't ready for a hearing. Howe said he might need another week.

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

Meanwhile, the constitutional amendment bill that has already cleared two Senate committees is getting closer to a floor vote. Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, has said since the beginning of session that he was open to another run at voter ID legislation, and that remains the case. However, Senjem said he doesn't know what the rest of his caucus thinks.

"I don't think there's an appetite yet, because I don't think most of us know or understand what the Howe proposal is," Senjem said. "So, I don't think it has necessarily caught on that that's better than what we've been on. We obviously tried to do the legislative approach last year. It did not work, and so I suspect there's a fair amount of suspicion as to whether or not that can work again."

There also appears to be a fair amount of suspicion in the Minnesota House. State Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, believes electronic poll books could be a viable option for local election officials. But Kiffmeyer, who served eight years as secretary of state, stressed that she is not easing up on trying to put a voter ID requirement on the ballot.

"We see it as complementary, maybe, but not a substitute," Kiffmeyer said. "So, we're proceeding on the photo ID constitutional amendment as we were before."

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

Kiffmeyer's constitutional amendment bill, which she introduced last session, remains parked in the Ways and Means Committee. She expects her bill to receive another committee hearing soon.

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