Dan McGrath: Photo ID at polls won't work magic

  • Article by: DAN MCGRATH
  • Updated: July 25, 2010 - 5:30 PM

Talk of felons voting is now fodder in the race for secretary of state, but let's consider how elections actually work.

Contrary to state Rep. Dan Severson's claim that Minnesota should institute a photo ID requirement for voting in order to prevent felon vote fraud ("Photo ID at the polls: just smart" July 18), photo IDs would do nothing to prevent ex-offenders from voting in error.

But this is not the only inaccuracy or half-truth from Severson, a candidate to be secretary of state, the top election official in Minnesota.

Severson's assertion that the recent flap about felons who may have voted in 2008 means that Minnesota needs a photo ID requirement for voting is nonsense. The only type of fraud a photo ID requirement could prevent is a voter's showing up at the polls claiming to be another registered voter. Voter impersonation simply does not happen, as the thorough examination of our election system in the 2008 U.S. Senate recount showed.

A photo ID requirement certainly would not prevent people serving a felony sentence from voting. If you have a Minnesota driver's license or state ID card, look at it. Does yours indicate anywhere whether or not you have a felony conviction?

Severson's real intention is trying to make political hay out of a nonissue by going after his opponent, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. By trying to blame Ritchie for "allowing" felons to vote, Severson shows that he does not understand how the election system works.

All registered voters have records in the Statewide Voter Registration System. When a person is convicted of a felony, that information is sent to the secretary of state so that voter's record can be flagged. Such a voter would be challenged by election judges. The voter's record is not removed from the list. If a person flagged as a felon shows up to vote and is challenged by the election judges, but takes an oath swearing eligibility, Minnesota election law says that person must be allowed to vote. Election officials could not turn such voters away even if they wanted to.

If we think about it, we don't want election officials turning away voters in hopes of preventing fraud. How many eligible voters would we turn away to prevent one ineligible voter? Severson is wrong to say it is "not good enough" to detect fraud after the fact. The laws we have to penalize voters who knowingly commit fraud work.

However many ineligible felons voted in 2008 (the data from the report Severson cites has been dismissed as overwhelmingly inaccurate), you can bet that very few did it intentionally. As important as voting is, it is not worth risking another felony. Our election system already has significant checks in place, both before and after Election Day, to make sure that only eligible voters vote or that ineligible voters are caught.

Severson does have some good ideas about how we could better use technology to streamline the voting process, though none would mean we must bar a person who does not have a photo ID from voting. However, it would be easier to believe he has a genuine interest -- rather than a desire to use these suggestions as a front for a photo ID requirement -- if he had not consistently opposed bills in the Minnesota House to improve the voter-registration process and the accuracy of the state database. Our system could already be in better shape had Severson not stood in the way, and had Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who helped reignite this issue by speculating that felons may have decided the 2008 Senate election, not vetoed the bills.

National studies have estimated that more than 10 percent of eligible voters do not have the photo ID that Severson and others want to require for a person to vote. That is far too high a cost when a photo ID requirement would not prevent any type of fraud that actually happens, such as confusion around when a person with a felony is eligible to vote.

If Severson really wants to address this problem, a better solution would be for Minnesota to join the 14 states that restore a person's right to vote automatically upon their release from prison (or the two states, Maine and Vermont, that never take away a person's right to vote). Studies have even shown that voting helps lower recidivism rates by rebuilding an ex-offender's connection to the community.

Dan McGrath is executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, a coalition of organizations concerned with economic and social justice.

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