Minnesota's intense struggle over voting rights and election security is moving into close quarters.

The battleground has shifted to the precise wording of a proposed photo ID constitutional amendment to be written by a legislative committee. The two sides read the same language in different ways but agree that the stakes are high for this final revision.

What words are chosen, and how they are interpreted, could change the way Minnesotans vote.

DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie reads the language and sees a bombshell for Minnesota's elections -- an end to the popular system of same-day registration and creation of a parallel bureaucracy of provisional ballots that could delay reporting of election results.

Photo ID sponsor Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, sees the text of the Republican-backed bills as flexible enough to allow Minnesota's current voting system to continue but with improved security.

The wording is more crucial than usual because photo ID is being offered as a permanent amendment to the Minnesota Constitution, which would be very difficult to change.

"We're writing in indelible ink,'' said Assistant House Minority Leader Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park.

At each step, debate over the wording has intensified.

Competing bills requiring voters to show a photo ID passed both Republican-controlled chambers last week without attracting any DFL votes, but only after marathon debates over what the language means. An all-Republican, House-Senate conference committee has been appointed to write a compromise version, which would have to go back to each chamber for final approval.

That language would be submitted to voters in November as a proposed amendment to the Minnesota Constitution.

Parsing the language

The bill will include two parts: a proposed ballot question that Minnesotans will be asked to decide on in November, and the text of the constitutional amendment itself. That text will be written by the conference committee but will not appear on the ballot.

Both versions state that all voters must be subject to "substantially equivalent" verification of eligibility before a ballot is cast or counted.

Ritchie says this language turns a photo ID requirement into an attack on same-day registration. "The goal of the amendment is getting rid of election-day registration," Ritchie said. Because so many steps are involved in verifying a voter's eligibility, he said, there is no way election judges could do a "substantially equivalent" verification in the polling place.

All same-day voters would likely have to cast "provisional" ballots, which are opened and counted several days later, assuming eligibility can be verified. Siphoning more than a half-million voters into the "provisional" pile would delay reporting results and create nightmares for local election officials, Ritchie said.

Kiffmeyer said Ritchie's worst-case scenario is unfounded. She said most same-day registrants with a photo ID could be registered and allowed to vote as they do now, with only a minority siphoned into the "provisional" pool.

What the amendment would do, she said, is eliminate the practice of "vouching," in which a registered voter vouches for the residence of another voter. Kiffmeyer sees vouching as an invitation to fraud.

"What I'm doing is working hard to preserve same day but to give it the integrity it deserves," she said.

Ritchie and Kiffmeyer's dueling interpretation of the language represents the sharp division in the debate.

Republicans see DFLers as refusing to recognize the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the voting system and to enact sensible precautions. DFLers see ID supporters as raising false claims of fraud to ratchet down turnout and suppress the vote among poor, minority and elderly voters.

He said, she said

Ritchie cites Kiffmeyer's testimony to Congress in 2007, shortly after Ritchie unseated Kiffmeyer as secretary of state. In that appearance she criticized same-day registration for creating long lines, swamping local election officials and facilitating vote fraud. Ending same-day registration has been a "12-year project of Rep. Kiffmeyer," Ritchie said.

"I never have said any such thing," Kiffmeyer said in response to Ritchie's claim. While she has opposed vouching, she said, she does not oppose same-day registration "as long as you have your ID."

The range of approved IDs also has triggered a language fight.

DFLers wanted the amendment to require "government-approved" IDs rather than "government-issued" IDs, giving the Legislature more latitude. The handling of an ID requirement for both "in-person" voters at the polls and those casting absentee or mail-in ballots is also at issue.

Two-step "provisional balloting" would be a first for Minnesota. Joe Mansky, Ramsey County's elections manager and a spokesman for county auditors, said the experience of other states is that from half to four-fifths of those who vote provisionally do not make the second step needed to complete the vote. "It does not have a big enough success rate," Mansky said.

If voters approve the amendment, the 2013 Legislature would write a law to put it into effect. That's why Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, broadened the ID language to "photographic identification or equivalent," to allow for advances beyond the 19th-century technology of the photograph.

Mansky said the interpretation of such phrases as "substantially equivalent" will determine how much the voting system would change. With Minnesota's two-decade-long history of politically divided government, he said, chances are the courts will be asked to step in.

"A judge will determine what 'substantially equivalent' means," he said.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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