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Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Lori Sturdevant: Same-day registration for voters is on the block

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • March 25, 2012 - 6:11 AM

At times the debate over the voter ID constitutional amendment has seemed like the 2006 race for secretary of state all over again.

There were Mary Kiffmeyer, the 2006 GOP incumbent, arguing that Election Day registration as practiced in Minnesota puts election integrity in peril, and Mark Ritchie, the 2006 DFL challenger and 2012 incumbent, defending the ability to register to vote on Election Day.

You ask: Election Day registration? Isn't this fight about whether you need to swipe your driver's license when you sign in at the polls?

That's what you'd conclude from the question the House bill would put on the ballot: "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo identification on Election Day and that the state provide free identification to eligible voters?"

But the House version of the bill (the Senate's is being debated at this writing) contains language for the Constitution itself that's more sweeping. A key sentence: "All voters must be subject to substantially equivalent eligibility verification prior to a ballot being cast or counted."

Future Legislatures and the courts will decide exactly what that means. But here's a good guess: No more would Minnesotans be able to register at the polls and cast a vote that's just as likely to be counted as are the ballots cast by preregistered voters.

It's already clear that if the voter ID amendment passes, Election Day registration as Minnesotans have known it since 1974 would end. The opportunity for a registered voter to vouch for an unregistered one would go away. Kiffmeyer, who lost the argument with Ritchie in the 2006 election but is now a state representative, would get the last word.

The House's proposed constitutional language says that voters who are "unable to present government-issued photographic identification" would be offered provisional ballots -- a count-'em-later-maybe ballot not now used in Minnesota.

But the language about "substantially equivalent eligibility verification" could portend a larger role for provisional ballots. By Ritchie's reading, count-'em-later ballots would be required for every same-day registrant. This year, that's expected to be 500,000 to 600,000 voters.

Putting that many registration applications through anything "substantially equivalent" to the eight-step verification process that's now standard for voters who preregister isn't possible at the polls, Ritchie says. Not in township halls that lack cellphone service, let alone broadband connections.

Kiffmeyer disagrees. She predicted that new technology will permit almost-instant verification of most registrants. "My goal is to make provisional ballots as little necessary as possible," she says.

Avoiding them entirely would be even better, given other states' experience. In states that use provisional ballots, about a third of them go uncounted in every election, Ritchie said.

Kiffmeyer and Ritchie's 1-1 split on the amendment is consistent with the party-line votes that this amendment has been getting all year. I wondered: Is Minnesota's other living pair of secretary of state rivals similarly split?

Answer: No. DFLer Joan Growe and Republican Arlen Erdahl, who contended for the chief election administrator's office in 1974, both said last week that if the election were today, they'd vote no on the voter ID amendment.

Election Day registration was something of a sore point in their contest 38 years ago, Growe recalled. She accused Erdahl of inadequately training local officials to meet the requirements of a sweeping 1973 elections law, which included same-day registration.

But Erdahl said he has always been a strong advocate for allowing people to register and vote on the same visit to the polls. He'd hate to see that end.

"It was about opening the system, so that more people can participate," he said. "We had a pretty bipartisan attitude about making the system open, accessible and easy. The system we created is a remarkable one."

Both Erdahl and Growe credit same-day registration with making Minnesota the nation's consistent voter turnout champ. Typical Minnesota turnout was OK but not nation-leading before that change, they said.

Growe became a national authority on election administration during 24 years in office. She deserves heed when she says that the proposed amendment would wreak havoc on registration and ballot-processing systems that are now considered the best in the nation.

"The logistics of this are crazy," Growe said. "Provisional voting is more staff, more bureaucracy, more cost, more delay."

The amendment also would turn helpful election judges into election cops -- a role that many in today's corps of judges won't want to play, she predicted.

Erdahl said he takes seriously GOP concerns about election integrity. He acknowledges that for most people, showing a photo ID is not a burden. But keeping the polls accessible comes first.

"I don't want to be so self-righteous as to say that fraud can't happen here. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do everything possible to ensure that the largest number of people can vote. ... Let's make voting as available as possible to all sides, not just to one party."

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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