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Continued: Catholics, Lutherans and voter ID

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 8, 2012 - 5:28 PM

Me to editor: "Please headline this column 'Lutherans and Catholics agree: Vote "no" on amendment.'"

Editor to me: "Really?! That's a big story!"

Me to editor: "Well ... it's not that amendment. And it's not the Lutheran and Catholic churches' official governing bodies. But yeah, I think it's a big deal."

When this state's two leading faith-based social service agencies, Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities, speak out in opposition to a proposed constitutional change in voting requirements, this long-ago religion reporter smells a story.

Many Lutheran synods and Minnesota's Roman Catholic dioceses have staked out opposite sides of the proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that's on the Nov. 6 Minnesota ballot. Their differences have been widely trumpeted in the 15 months since that amendment went on this year's ballot.

Some Minnesotans might not appreciate the religious overtone the marriage amendment debate has acquired. But it was to be expected. Marriage is a matter about which religions claim considerable authority.

What isn't as well-known is that some prominent church folk are also talking about the "other" amendment. The governing boards of both Lutheran Social Services (LSS) and Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis (CC) think the proposed photo-ID-to-vote requirement ought to be rejected.

LSS has taken the rare step of asking Lutheran congregations in Minnesota to insert a position statement into Sunday-morning worship bulletins. CC's Office of Social Justice is contacting parishes offering information and even a skit to get their message across.

Why should nonpartisan, faith-based social service organizations care about whether a would-be voter needs to wave a government-issued ID card to get a ballot at the polls? It's because such a requirement would make voting more difficult for "the least of these" -- these agencies' frail elderly, disabled and homeless clients.

I asked agency heads Jodi Harpstead of LSS and Tim Marx of CC to explain. Here are excerpts:

Harpstead: This amendment would negatively affect so many of the people we serve.

Marx: We registered 500 people in 2008 and helped them get to the polls, and helped them register by vouching for them.

A typical voter in that group would be a gentleman who lost a job, was evicted, and has to spend time in our shelter. Sometimes that's long-term. Someone like that is often transit-dependent, and doesn't have a valid driver's license. He wouldn't have a photo ID that would show a permanent residence. He likely wouldn't have access to a birth certificate, because of the chaotic life he's been put in the position of leading. But he wants to vote.

Harpstead: We work with older adults in rural Minnesota who live in nursing homes, who no longer drive and don't have a current photo ID. We have people who could vote across the street, who know the election judges by name and their children and their grandchildren. But they may have to get a ride 50 miles round-trip to get a photo ID. They've voted in every election since Roosevelt, and now they may not be able to vote unless they get that ride.

I know of another woman in her 60s who uses Metro Mobility and found out that the nearest office for her to get a photo ID would be in Roseville, and Metro Mobility doesn't go there. She got a ride. But she's been married and divorced, and her current name doesn't match the name on her birth certificate. She has a court order from another state saying that, postdivorce, this is her name, and they wouldn't accept it. She still doesn't have a photo ID.

The disabled people who live in our homes are another matter. We've helped some of them get IDs. Many who grew up in regional treatment centers never had their birth certificates. We've been through hassles with them to get birth certificates and Social Security cards. It can be a real hassle for them.

• • •

Harpstead and Marx both bristle at the suggestion that their staffers who help residents of shelters, group homes and nursing homes register to vote improperly influence them.

"That would be anathema to every value we hold dear," Harpstead said.

Marx added that CC takes care through its intake process to determine whether a resident is eligible to vote -- that is, whether he or she is a U.S. citizen 18 or older who is not on supervised release after a felony conviction.

They also reject the suggestion that some of their clients aren't "smart enough" to vote. "If being judged 'smart' becomes a prerequisite for voting, we could have lot of people disqualified," Harpstead said.

Marx said he's known many residents of homeless shelters who follow current events closely. But that's not why they deserve to vote, he emphasized. They deserve to vote because they are guaranteed that right as Americans.

Exercising that right also can make them better citizens, he added. "What is so affirming about watching our residents vote is seeing the sense of dignity and pride they get. In spite of being in poverty, they get a chance to feel the dignity of full participation in society. That tends to make them want to more fully participate economically and socially. To deprive them of that opportunity would be a real tragedy."

At the Legislature and in other states that have taken up the national GOP push for a photo ID requirement at the polls, the issue has taken on a highly partisan color. As a result, to many people, the voting amendment is about giving or denying an advantage to one party over another.

But this amendment has broader implications. It's also about whether or not Minnesotans see those at the margins of life as their fellow citizens.

"We'd like to de-partisanize this, and make it about the people it affects," Marx said. That won't be easy. But when Lutherans and Catholics work together in Minnesota, miracles are possible.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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