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Minnesota's historic battle over photo ID and the future of the state's voting system moved from the Capitol to the voters themselves on Wednesday.
The House and Senate, with Republicans supplying all the "yes" votes, gave final approval to a proposed constitutional amendment that would require voters to show a photo ID, create a new system of "provisional" balloting and end election day "vouching" for voters without proof of residence. It passed the House on a 72-57 vote shortly after midnight and was approved by the Senate Wednesday afternoon on a 35-29 vote.
The decision puts Minnesota squarely in the center of a national debate over election security vs. ballot access. Five states have strict photo ID requirements in law. Wisconsin and several other states are battling the issue in court or in their legislatures. Minnesota now joins Mississippi and Missouri as states that have sought to impose the changes via constitutional amendments. Minnesota's amendment will likely face court challenges of its own before it goes to voters.
"We will now turn this over to the people of Minnesota, and they will ultimately decide this issue," the Senate sponsor, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said as the three-hour Senate debate wrapped up. The photo ID amendment will join another emotional topic, the proposed amendment to ban gay marriage, on the general election ballot Nov. 6.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer who opposes the measure but who would have to oversee its implementation, predicted the amendment would "turn our state's entire election system upside down."
His predecessor as secretary of state, the House sponsor, Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, told House members, "If you have no system that deters and detects fraud, and you don't determine the identity of voters, the electoral system cannot inspire public confidence."
Debate went full circle
The debate ended the way it began. Republicans called it a common-sense measure to tighten up Minnesota's voting system and make sure voters are who they say they are. DFLers said the requirement would not prevent the tiny amount of fraud that exists but may erect barriers to certain voters and throw a bombshell into Minnesota's popular election-day registration system.
Newman said he tried to design a bill that would meet inevitable court challenges, focusing on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld Indiana's strict photo ID law. He said one goal was to end "vouching," which allows one registered voter in Minnesota to vouch for the eligibility of another voter.
"It is our intent to eliminate the vouching system in Minnesota," Newman said, "which I believe is ready-made for voter fraud."
Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, asked what election judges would do if a person changed hairstyles and did not resemble the picture on the ID. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, replied, "It might just mean the person standing before the election judge is not the person they say they are." But he said the new system would allow that person to cast a provisional ballot, which would be counted only if the voter later supplied proof of identity.
"This bill is about voter disqualification and voter nullification," said Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm.
Sen. Mike Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, responded: "What we are talking about is an extremely minimal burden on voters."
One Republican, Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona, joined DFLers in opposing the bill. No DFLers voted for the bill, either in committee or on the House or Senate floors. After the vote, Ritchie said: "Independent voters in general are very suspicious -- when something is strictly a partisan battle, they smell a rat somewhere."
Seeing a discrepancy?
A new issue arose as the Senate sent the bill on its way -- whether the ballot question accurately reflects the changes that would be made to the state Constitution. DFLers say proposed changes are far more complex and wide-ranging than the ballot question would indicate.
"I think this question is a sham," said Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis. "If voters knew what the other changes to be made were ... this would be soundly defeated."
The ballot question asks voters whether the constitution should be amended to "require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote" and to require the state "to provide free identification to eligible voters."
The language that would be inserted into the state Constitution sets up a new system of provisional ballots, equalizes eligibility and identity requirements in a way that could affect election-day registration and absentee voting, and requires the IDs to be "government-issued," which would limit the range of IDs that could be used. That language would not appear on the ballot. The ballot question as written also makes no reference to the end of "vouching."
Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause, said after the vote that he expects groups opposed to photo ID to challenge the amendment in court on the discrepancy between the ballot question and the actual changes to the Constitution.
Missouri's proposed photo ID ballot question was struck down by a judge, and legislators are scrambling to rewrite the language.
"That ballot question is misleading to voters," Dean said of the Minnesota question. "The court provided that if it is misleading, it can be struck down."
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042