DFLers who said they could create a high-tech alternative to photo identification at the polls that would preserve voter access now say they may not be able to deliver on that compromise solution anytime soon.
Instead, five cities will feature laptops, tablets and license-swiping readers at their municipal elections this fall as a test of new voting technology — without photo identification as part of the pilot project. Officials will keep studying whether the computer offers a digital compromise between those who believe a strict photo ID component is needed and those who worry that such requirements will suppress the votes of poor, elderly and absentee voters.
“You have to crawl before you could walk,” said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, who chairs the House Elections Committee, referring to the limited nature of this year’s technological test.
In the midst of last year’s photo ID fight, DFL leaders who opposed the requirement promoted a new generation of “electronic pollbooks” as a potential middle ground. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said a system that identified voters using already-existing ID card photos, with election judges taking photos on the spot when necessary, could be established quickly and cheaply. Gov. Mark Dayton and others endorsed the plan.
Voters defeated the photo ID constitutional amendment last November and turned control of the Legislature over to the DFL, whose members opposed photo ID. The pollbook fix was studied and discussed this past year, but it turned out to be more difficult than previously believed. Problems with photos in the state’s ID system, the ability of computer networks to talk to each other and concerns about the delay involved in taking photos at the polls all worked against implementing the plan Ritchie and Dayton proposed, officials said.
An elections bill passed this year with support of both parties — a far cry from the 2012 voting battle — referred the issue to an “Electronic Roster Task Force” chaired by Ritchie and comprised of legislators, election officials, state information and driver and vehicle services officials. They are to study and report back to the Legislature on incorporating photos into an electronic pollbook or roster at the precinct, along with other issues related to election technology.
Problems with the photos
Ritchie was out of the office and unavailable for comment. Beth Fraser, Deputy Secretary of State, said Ritchie still supports the photo-pollbook concept, but has learned that there are problems with the photographs on file with the state Driver and Vehicle Services division. Ritchie will chair the task force and “is glad that the task force will have the opportunity to fully explore these issues,” Fraser said.
The cities of St. Paul, Minnetonka, St. Anthony, Moorhead and Dilworth were selected to try out new technology from a number of vendors, including the Minnetonka-based Datacard Group. Selected precincts in these communities will use laptops and tablets to check in preregistered voters and serve others who are registering on Election Day. Having unregistered voters swipe ID cards, which inputs personal information into the system, could save data-entry time at the polling place and back at the county office.
“We should be able to process voters through the sign-in or registration process more rapidly and cost-effectively than today,” said Joe Mansky, the Ramsey County elections manager.
The state is following the lead of Minnetonka, which began experimenting with such systems in 2009 and has enjoyed success in using new technology to register voters on Election Day. Residents whose state ID cards have a current address can swipe them through a bar code reader that will enter the information in the voter registration application. The election official “hits a button and makes sure the address is in the precinct,” said City Clerk David Maeda.
Maeda is a member of the task force and believes that the state is just beginning to dip its toe into the technological pool. “I definitely think that by 10 years, we’re going to be thinking, ‘Why didn’t we do this quicker?’ ” Maeda said.
Fraser, of the secretary of state’s office, said that while several states are using technology in this way at the polls, none has incorporated photos into the databases. Mansky said that once an electronic system is established, it could incorporate any verification method the Legislature wants, including passwords and PIN numbers.
One task force member, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, a former secretary of state who was the state’s strongest photo ID supporter last year, calls this year’s effort “the art of the possible” under DFL control. She says she believes even this limited test can help the state’s election system. “This is a definite step forward, but it does fall short,” she said.
Simon is considering a run to succeed Ritchie, who is not seeking another term as secretary of state next year. Simon said he believes the task force could be a step toward bringing the two sides together over Minnesota’s election system.
“Over the long haul, this could be a way to find some common ground,” he said.