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MPR News Primer: Voter ID

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Last updated on October 31, 2012

Should the state Constitution be changed to require Minnesotans to show a valid photo ID in order to vote? After months of legislative wrangling, Minnesota voters will make the final call on the matter Nov 6.

The last step to put the question on the Election Day ballot came April 4, when the Minnesota Senate approved legislation passed earlier by the House. 

While public support is down from last year, a majority  still backs it, so don't expect the controversy to ebb.

The political battles in Wisconsin and states across the country on this issue have come to Minnesota, where state Republicans are pressing a constitutional "Voter ID" amendment that would significantly change Minnesota's current voter eligibility and identification rules.

DFLers are fighting the amendment, warning it could keep more than 200,000 Minnesotans from exercising their right to vote. Is there a middle ground?

What's the main argument for requiring a photo ID at the polls?

The key question is whether Minnesotans should have to show a photo identification to vote. Since most voting adults already hold a driver's license or passport, backers say showing a photo ID at the polls is a no brainer, an easy, necessary way to deter voter fraud. Those without a photo ID could get one free of charge from the state.

What's the main argument against requiring a photo ID at the polls?

Opponents, who packed a Feb. 2 legislative hearing, warn that it will stymie those with a legitimate right to vote, including senior citizens without IDs, military personnel serving overseas or students who don't have an ID that shows their current address.

They also argue that it will effectively end same-day registration -- the ability to walk up to the polls, register, then vote.

(Supporters dispute that, saying their voter ID proposed would still let people register, then vote, on Election Day. However, people would no longer be able to vouch for another person's eligibility to vote at the polls.)

How many potential voters don't have IDs?

The Minnesota Secretary of State's Office estimates the proposal would be a problem for 215,000 current voters, "...primarily the elderly, disabled, students and military personnel," MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire writes.

That's roughly 7 percent of the nearly 3.1 million registered voters in Minnesota.

Nationally, the research on voters without ID is all over the place.

In 2006, a New York University Law School report estimated more than 21 million people -- 11 percent of U.S. citizens -- don't have a current, unexpired government-issued ID with a photo.

About a year later, American University dove into data for Maryland, Indiana and Mississippi and concluded that only a tiny number of registered voters -- fewer than half a percent -- had neither photo ID nor citizenship documentation, adding that access to IDs in order to vote in these states is "not a serious problem."

What do other states do?

Minnesota and 16 other states have no voter ID law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In other states, the rules run from a non-photo ID requirement to what NCSL calls "strict photo" laws, where voters must show a photo ID to vote; if not they can get a provisional ballot, "...which is counted only if the voter returns to election officials within several days after the election to show a photo ID."

The NCSL counts Wisconsin's new law in that strict photo group.

Minnesota isn't the only voter ID hot spot. Lawmakers in several states are pressing similar changes based on proposals from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

Is voter fraud a big problem in Minnesota?

Nationally, Minnesota's long been viewed as squeaky clean when it comes to elections. When votes are close and contentious, though, allegations fly.

The state's reputation took a hit in the race for 2008 U.S. Senate race between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman.

Franken won the close contest after a hard-fought recount where some Republicans, including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, felt voter fraud played a role in Franken's win.

Last October, Minnesota Majority, a group pressing for a Minnesota voter ID law, claimed, "Upwards of 2,800 ineligible felons are believed to have unlawfully voted in Minnesota's 2008 general election" and that 113 had been convicted of voting illegally in that election.

MPR News reporter Catharine Richert dug into the convictions data and concluded, "Minnesota Majority's estimate that 113 people have been convicted of voter fraud may be in the ballpark, though a precise number is elusive." She also noted that 113 represents "far less than 1 percent of the roughly 2.9 million Minnesotans who voted in the 2008 election."

What are voter ID's prospects here?

Minnesota Republican lawmakers last year passed a voter ID bill that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed. Supporters were able to end-run Dayton by putting it to voters this fall as a change to Minnesota's Constitution, a move that bypasses the governor.

Several groups opposing the amendment brought a case to the Minnesota Supreme Court saying the wording of the ballot question was vague and misleading. But the court rejected the challenge and refused to remove the amendment from the ballot. 

A recent Star Tribune poll indicates a public majority still backs voter ID but that support has weakened from last year. What seemed like a lock in May 2011 appears closer to a toss-up a month before Election Day.

Is there any room for compromise?

Maybe, although it's unlikely. Some DFL and Republican lawmakers are interested in a new voter verification system-- "electronic poll books" -- that wouldn't require photo ID or a change to the state constitution. The system, for example, could allow poll judges to pull up a database of drivers' license photos or take new photos of each voter at the polling place, Pugmire writes.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie believes the electronic book plan would cost $30 million less. Even after the March 21 House vote, Ritchie said officials were still trying to negotiate a "a cost-effective non-partisan alternative" to the constitutional amendment.

Amendment proponents, though, appear undeterred, viewing the "electronic poll books" as something that would simply complement  the voter ID amendment.

Compromise, at this point, seems unrealistic.  Those tied to the debate don't even agree on the ballot question's formal name.

In July, Ritchie, a DFL-er, announced he would use his power to  change the name of the ballot question to "Changes to In-Person & Absentee Voting & Voter Registration; Provisional Ballots."  GOP legislative sponsors had titled the question: "Photo Identification Required for Voting." 

Amendment backers accused Ritchie of trying to sabotage the amendment's passage  Ritchie said he was simply sharing his concerns about its potential consequences and costs.

In August, though, the Minnesota Supreme Court  ordered the Legislature's original wording restored, ruling that Ritchie had exceeded his authority.

If the amendment passes, what happens next?

Even if Minnesotans OK the amendment, the battle doesn't necessarily end. The Legislature has to write enabling legislation to spell out how the new voting system will work. If lawmakers and the governor can't agree on that legislation the courts would likely step in.

Amendment opponents say the voter ID battle will end up in court with judges making the call on how it operates. "They're basically sending an engraved invitation for judicial intervention year after year after year if this passes," Rep. Steve Simon says. 

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, who sponsored the voter ID measure, is confident lawmakers can write operating legislation in a way that won't shut out any eligible voters. 

She's vowed to work with Dayton. But she's also made it clear she is prepared to go to court over voter ID. 

MPR News political editor Mike Mulcahy contributed to this report.