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Cindy Westrup put up signs to lead caucus goers to the right places at the Republican precinct caucuses in Stillwater. There, Republicans swiped driver’s licenses through card readers to demonstrate the ease of requiring photo IDs at the polls.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

THE CASE IN FAVOR

"It is not my intent to prevent anyone from voting. My intent is to preserve the integrity of the voting process. ... We need to modernize our system. I do think we have voter fraud in Minnesota.''

Sen. SCOTT NEWMAN, R-Hutchinson, author of the bill that would allow voter photo ID to be voted on as a constitutional amendment

Editorial: A voting solution in search of a problem

  • February 19, 2012 - 5:47 PM

The fundamental question in the voter photo ID debate is this: If voting is a right, is the burden on government to make it available, or is the onus on individuals to demonstrate they are worthy of the right?

We think government should bear most of that responsibility. And that's one of the critical reasons that a state constitutional amendment requiring photo voter ID is unnecessary. Given this nation's history of denying rights to women and African-Americans, it is especially important that voting be accessible to all.

Nevertheless, a measure that would restrict those rights is moving through the state Legislature. On a party-line vote last week, the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee approved a bill that would send a constitutional amendment to the ballot in November. Citizens would decide whether to require that all voters provide a government-issued photo ID and whether the state should provide free IDs.

Republicans who favor the bill say a constitutional amendment is needed to deter fraud; the DFL opposition sees it as a partisan ploy to suppress votes among groups that often vote Democratic.

Supporters of the bill say polls show that a majority of Minnesota residents favor photo ID. That's understandable, because many Minnesotans have a driver's license or another government-issued photo ID. But for the minority of Minnesotans who don't have that type of identification, requiring an ID to vote would be an unnecessary burden that could keep them away from the polls.

The secretary of state's office reports that about 215,000 registered Minnesota voters lack a state driver's license or a state ID card or list an address different from that on voter-registration forms.

Minnesota is one of 35 states that do not require photo identification before voting at the polls and one of 19 that do not require any type of identification.

According to state voter figures, more than 540,000 Minnesota voters used election-day registration in 2008 -- about 18 percent of all voters. No doubt some of them used vouching by fellow voters to be able to cast ballots. Proposed amendment language would eliminate vouching and could restrict or do away with same-day voting. Minnesota has offered the practice for 40 years; it is one reason that the state leads the nation in voter turnout.

During packed House hearings and rallies this month, groups representing voters -- including students, seniors, immigrants, the disabled, the poor and people of color -- all voiced passionate opposition to the photo ID requirement. AARP, for example, said the change would disproportionately affect the elderly, many of whom give up driver's licenses when they get older or move from their homes after decades at the same address.

And for some older people who have never driven, the necessary documentation to get an ID could be difficult to obtain. Many over age 65 were born before recording births was standard procedure. And while the photo ID may be free, it would cost voters to get copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses or other documents to show name changes. In addition, students, the disabled and others who frequently change addresses may be denied the right to vote.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, an opponent of the bill, points out that previous Republican governors rejected similar legislation, believing that election changes should be done on a bipartisan basis. He also notes that rapid technological changes could make this brand of photo ID obsolete before the bill could be implemented. He and other lawmakers say that electronic poll books, for example, could eliminate the need to present physical IDs by keeping photos and information about registered and eligible voters.

Election officials in some of the state's largest counties report few problems with election fraud. In Ramsey County, just over 1,550 votes have been questioned since 2008, and most involved voting by felons. Only 18 of them were found to be cases of misrepresentation. And that small number was discovered without a photo ID law in place.

Excellent, thoughtful election laws have been enacted in this state when lawmakers have come together to make smart changes. Enshrining this major revision in the Constitution would be a mistake.

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