It's nearly certain that Minnesotans will decide this November whether they want to change the state's Constitution to require voters to show photo identification at the polls.
The Legislature is nearing final approval of the proposed voter ID amendment, which would place the question on the November ballot.
What's less certain is how a voter ID law would play out in future elections in Minnesota. By design, the wording of the constitutional amendment is sparse on details; if approved by the voters, lawmakers wouldn't lay out exactly how the new system would work until the 2013 legislative session.
In the meantime, election officials, voters and advocates on both sides of the issue are scratching their heads over what the proposed voter ID requirement will mean for Minnesota's future elections.
"No one is exactly sure how this will affect the operation of the elections, should the amendment be adopted by the public," said Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky.
A look at how other states have implemented and enforced similar voting requirements paints a picture of what Minnesotans can expect from a new ID requirement.
Here's one thing Minnesotans can count on if the amendment is approved: they'll have to show government-issued photo identification.
Minnesota's Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat who opposes a voter ID requirement, estimates that roughly 215,000 Minnesotans either don't have identification with a current address or any identification at all.
"No one is exactly sure how this will affect the operation of elections."
Voter ID opponents say the rules mean seniors, college students and people who are homeless could have a harder time voting. But the amendment doesn't say which forms of identification would be acceptable.
The nine states where a photo ID is required to cast a ballot actually accept a range of identification. In Kansas, for instance, where voter ID went into effect this year, voters can show a U.S. passport, a driver's license issued by Kansas or another state, or a student ID card issued by a Kansas college, among other documents.
Five states offer exemptions for those who have a religious opposition to being photographed, are living in a nursing home where they vote, or who vote absentee by mail, among other things.
Kansas and Georgia are among states that don't require identification with a current address, which has been a concern among Minnesotans who oppose stricter voting rules.
Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who is the chief sponsor of the House version of the amendment, says requiring identification with a current address would be impractical.
"I can't imagine that we as Democrats and Republicans ... to be so foolish as to put a requirement that you have to have the address where you live at on your ID," she said.
Broadly written identification requirements may be open to legal interpretation, said Richard Hasen, a law professor at University of California-Irvine and an expert in election law.
"If the language is vague -- for example, it says 'government-issued identification,' then you could imagine lawsuits filed that would argue over what that term means," Hasen said.
Many states, whether they have voter ID laws or not, use provisional ballots for a range of issues. Most frequently, voters fill them out if they've come to the wrong precinct to vote. Those ballots are counted later, after the voter can prove to election officials that they are who they say they are.
Initially, the idea was to allow more people to vote, said Edward B. Foley, an election law expert at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. But it turns out that the number of provisional ballots cast and counted each election varies widely from state to state, and it's not clear why, Foley added.
The process works better in theory than in practice because most people don't bother to prove their identity after the election is over, Foley said.
"That right very rarely gets exercised by voters," Foley said. "They watch the news at night, victory is declared for one candidate or another, or they don't have time to do it."
Minnesota has never used provisional ballots, but that would likely change with a voter ID law. Opponents say the new system could be costly and potentially delay election results as those ballots are counted.
Provisional ballots could be pivotal in close elections, such as the 2008 U.S. Senate recount, said Mansky.
"I don't think I have to remind you that the Senate race that year was decided by 312 votes," Mansky said. "How would you like to have us in a situation in a race that close, where there are over 1,000 ballots out there that we can't count?"
SAME-DAY VOTER REGISTRATION
Minnesota is unusual among other states because it allows same-day voter registration. In 2008, more than 500,000 Minnesotans showed up at the polls, registered and voted on that same day. Now, it appears there will be an additional step: show a photo ID.
Election experts say Wisconsin may be an important test of both same-day registration and a voter ID requirement. The state's new law, which is on hold due to a court challenge, requires a photo ID to vote. But voters there can still register on Election Day so long as they can prove that they live in their precinct with a property tax or utility bill, said Wisconsin Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney.
Beth Fraser, who is director of government affairs for Minnesota's Secretary of State, is dubious that same-day voter registration and voter ID can co-exist. Her concern focuses on a key line in the bill that requires all voters to be subject to "substantially equivalent" eligibility and identity verification.
She says it would be impossible for the state to verify each same-day registrant fast enough to allow them to vote on Election Day. And Fraser worries that the requirement will mean trouble for absentee voters, too.
"If the amendment requires that those not voting in person be subject to 'substantially equivalent' identity verification, somehow, it seems, you would need to be able to look at the person's ID and the person's face to be sure they are the same," Fraser said. "We don't know how that's possible if they're not there in person."
Proponents of voter identification say the measure is meant to protect against voter fraud. But opponents say the voting requirement could suppress turnout among disadvantaged or elderly voters who don't have identification.
So far, there's little evidence that voter ID laws change voting patterns one way or another, said Sean Greene, who manages election research for the Pew Center on the States.
"Right now there's a real lack of empirical evidence, I'd say, on both sides of the issue," said Greene. "That's in part because in a lot of these places, and certainly in the more recent states, the laws just haven't been in place very long."
But he also pointed out that there are a lot of reasons why people don't vote, so it's hard to tease out whether turnout is linked to voter ID laws or other factors.
"It's hard to come by data that would show 'X' number of people were prevented from going to the polls on a specific election day, or there have been 'X' number of people who were trying to vote but who were prevented from voting because of voter ID," Greene said.
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