Minnesota native Norm Ornstein, who has a new book out, weighs in.
Decades spent studying Congress in Washington must have finally drained Norm Ornstein of his native Minnesota optimism. So I thought when I saw the title of the new book Ornstein has written with his scholarly sidekick Thomas Mann, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."
The book's innards offered reassurance. Ornstein -- son of Grand Rapids and St. Louis Park, graduate of the University of Minnesota, former aide to U.S. Rep. Don Fraser, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute -- still holds to a thoroughly Minnesota notion: If more people voted and helped choose candidates, this state and nation would be better governed.
The more participation, the better government: That's been a Minnesota credo since steamboats started landing at Pig's Eye Parrant's tavern.
It helps explain why the photo ID amendment that's before the voters this fall is beginning to attract serious opposition, and not just from the DFLers who hold that a photo ID requirement is a Republican election-rigging plot.
Requiring all voters to present a government-issued ID card and "be subject to substantially equivalent identity and eligibility verification" prior to voting isn't in keeping with Minnesota's traditional welcome mat at the polls.
It's also why I wasn't surprised at Ornstein's take on the amendment: "It's not going too far to call it voter suppression."
For a fellow who hasn't lived in Minnesota for more than 40 years, he sounded fully up to speed on the legislative action that put the photo ID amendment on this year's ballot.
"What's happened, as in so many states, is you've got Republicans in control of the machinery, who talk all the time about how government should be doing less, stepping in with the pretext of guarding against voter fraud, which is farcical on its face. There is zero evidence of not just massive voter fraud, but of anything beyond an occasional example of some individual who shows up at the wrong precinct. ... It's a pretext to try to narrow voter participation."
Plainspoken analysis like that is what packed the Cowles Auditorium at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on a gorgeous June afternoon last week. The Minnesota homeboy and his Brookings Institution pal evidently have a strong local following.
In an interview, they reiterated what they said in their book: They're not completely hostile to all photo ID requirements for voting -- just those that put a burden on the elderly, the disabled, the young, the transient and the poor.
Those are the burdens that critics say Minnesota's proposed amendment would impose. Concern for the voting rights of disabled, poor and elderly clients motivated Lutheran Social Services to come out against the amendment last week.
Rhode Island's version of photo ID is better, Mann and Ornstein said. It requires not only that ID cards be widely available for free, but that all supporting documents needed for ID cards also be made available easily and without charge. What's more, photo ID cards issued by nongovernment entities (think private colleges) should also suffice at the polls.
Still, they recommend that a high-turnout state ("Minnesota has been a model") should resist the amendment for its requirement that provisional ballots ("a terrible process") be issued to would-be Election Day registrants. States that use provisional ballots around the country are finding that "they can be manipulated by partisan election officials," Ornstein said.
Besides, there's no evidence that Election Day registration as practiced in Minnesota is flawed. "It's an enormous convenience," he said.
There's irony in the context for Minnesota's photo ID vote this year. It's on the ballot at a time when hyperpartisanship is impeding government's orderly function both in Washington and St. Paul. Witness the events of the summer of 2011, in both capitols.
Government's ailment is systemic, persistent and worsening, Drs. Mann and Ornstein say. A key remedy they prescribe: Enlarge the electorate. That's just the opposite of what the photo ID amendment would do.
When turnout is small, Mann said, those who vote also tend to hold more-partisan views than the population as a whole. "The argument between the parties gets pulled further and further apart" as a result.
Increasing turnout, particularly in primaries, would dilute partisan extremes, they believe. They'd go so far as to mandate voting in primary and general elections -- or, if that's too radical for a nation in which "mandate" is a fighting word, they would try to entice voters with a lottery.
They also favor something already in use in Minneapolis and St. Paul city elections: ranked-choice voting. It would assure that election winners are backed by a majority, not just a plurality of those voting.
That's the kind of reformist energy the nation needs now from a participatory-democracy state like Minnesota -- not a windmill tilt at unproven voter fraud. Minnesotans ought to be leaders in making government functional again. The photo ID amendment could be a step in the opposite direction.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.