State Senate approves photo IDs for voters

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2012 - 10:58 PM

The version approved by the Senate on a 36-30 vote was slightly different from one the House passed earlier this week. It is designed to give future legislators the freedom to use new technology for identification purposes.

The Minnesota Senate on Friday night approved a proposed constitutional requirement that all voters show a photo ID at the polling place, ending a week in which both houses of the Republican-controlled Legislature endorsed the historic and partisan change in state voting law.

The Senate approved the measure 36 to 30 after a lengthy and emotional debate Friday evening. One Republican, Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona, joined DFLers in voting no; all the yes votes came from Republicans.

The version approved by the Senate was slightly different from one the House passed earlier this week. It includes a change designed to give future legislators the freedom to use new technology for identification purposes.

"I willingly admit there is some burden that will be placed on some of our citizens," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. But, he said, the requirement is needed to prevent fraud and give voters confidence in the system. "On balance, I believe this amendment is the right thing to do," he said. The change is proposed as a permanent amendment to the Minnesota Constitution. The two houses eventually will have to agree on the same language and pass a final version. If that is successful, the proposed amendment will go to Minnesota voters for their consideration in November.

As the Senate debate began in late afternoon, anti-photo ID demonstrators held signs, chanted slogans and sat and lay in the halls outside the Senate. But by the time the debate wound down late in the evening, the demonstrators had cleared away.

At issue in Friday's debate was not just the requirement to produce an ID, but how the proposed amendment would affect the way the state registers voters.

DFLers claimed that a proposed constitutional requirement that all voters be subject to "substantially equivalent state eligibility verification" before their ballots are counted would essentially end same-day voter registration, a popular established practice in Minnesota.

"We will have very little choice but to eliminate same-day voter registration as a result of this legislation," said Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, because the secretary of state "would not be able to verify a person's identity fast enough to allow people to vote the same day."

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, offered an amendment to eliminate the verification language. But Newman said that it was not necessary and that it was not his intention to end same-day registration. Other ID supporters admitted that the provision would end "vouching," in which a voter without current-address proof in the precinct can be vouched for by a registered voter.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, described vouching as "where you can bring 15 people with you, a busload full, to vote alongside you."

Sieben's amendment failed, as did other proposed DFL changes. But Newman was agreeable to one change offered by his own side.

Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, amended the bill to allow "equivalent" means of identification to be used in the future as new technologies become available. The change was overwhelmingly approved.

Fears, assurance

As in previous debates, Newman faced objections that his bill would disenfranchise elderly voters, those in nursing homes, homeless people and members of minority groups. In response, he said that if voters approve the change, potential problems could be fixed when the 2013 Legislature passes a specific law to put the amendment into effect. That assurance did not satisfy DFLers, who argued that the intended and unintended consequences of the change will be great.

DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the state's chief election officer and a photo ID opponent, has said the effect on same-day registration and the creation of a new system of "provisional" voting will be major negative changes to the state's election system.

In response to requests for proof of fraud, Newman cited several news stories and interest-group allegations about fraud charges, convictions and claims of faulty registration verification over the past decade.

Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, gave a history of U.S. voting struggles, concluding, "I am so fearful of the unintended consequences of this legislation."

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's veto of photo ID last year forced Republicans to take the constitutional route. "Empower the people, who are expected to be sovereign ... to vote on this bill," she urged her colleagues.

Provisional ballots, which do not now exist in Minnesota, are votes cast on Election Day but not counted until voters make a second trip to election officials to produce the required government-issued IDs. DFLers suggest that same-day registrants -- more than 500,000 in 2008 -- would have to cast such two-step ballots, and final results could be weeks in coming.

"The exact mechanics of how this is going to work is going to be taken up by the Legislature next year," if voters approve the amendment, Newman said several times during the debate.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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