Barbara Nyhammer's decision to sign her daughter's name to an absentee ballot in 2008 became a cause célèbre in the raging Photo ID debate at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Nyhammer, a Christian mental health therapist from Andover who said she has never had "so much as a parking ticket," was originally charged with three counts of felony voting fraud. She eventually convinced a judge the vote was a mistaken attempt to help her daughter, not a crime. Two charges were dismissed outright, and the judge dismissed the third after Nyhammer paid $200 in court costs.
"I am a woman of faith and also a patriot," Nyhammer, 52, told the judge when her case was resolved last August. "I believe voting is a privilege that men and women fought and died for."
Nyhammer said Tuesday she feels she was a "political football" and that the case was "blown way out of proportion."
But at the Capitol, where even the hint of vote fraud is a bombshell, a supporter of a photo ID requirement for all voters cited Nyhammer's case as evidence that the IDs are needed. Dan McGrath of Minnesota Majority, a conservative group that has investigated Minnesota's voting practices for years, called a news conference with the Nyhammer case as exhibit A.
"She robbed someone of a legitimate vote," McGrath said. "This is a situation that would have been stopped by a photo ID amendment." His organization claimed a $1,000 bounty offered for such evidence by the ACLU of Minnesota. ACLU officials said they were studying the case.
Which was not a simple one.
With her daughter, Alexandra Lyons, away at her first year of college in Mankato, Nyhammer told the judge, an absentee ballot arrived in the daughter's name before the 2008 election. "Just fill it in for me, Mom," Alexandra told Nyhammer via telephone. The two of them went through every race over the phone and Nyhammer filled in her daughter's choices.
"I told my daughter that the ballot required her signature," Nyhammer said. "She said, 'Go ahead and sign it for me, Mom.'"
After mailing in Alexandra's ballot, Nyhammer voted in person in Andover on Nov. 4. And the daughter, alas, did the same in Mankato.
Nyhammer said her daughter forgot she had already voted via the absentee ballot. "It was her first time," Nyhammer said Tuesday. "She said, 'Mom, I totally blocked it, I totally forgot.'"
Three votes for two voters caused Anoka County prosecutors to charge Nyhammer with three felonies: voting more than once in the same election; making or signing a false absentee certificate, and making a false or untrue statement on an absentee ballot application. She was fingerprinted, her mug shot was taken, a story appeared in the local newspaper and her clients stopped calling.
"The insurance company that had sought me out to help returning military personnel with mental health issues dropped me once I disclosed that I had been charged," Nyhammer said.
In August, in an appearance before Anoka County District Judge Jenny Walker Jasper, the judge noted that when Nyhammer read the absentee form, it seemed to say someone could mark a ballot as directed by the voter if that person wasn't physically able to do so. Nyhammer explained how she discussed mailing the absentee ballot to her daughter and then filled it in over the telephone.
"I volunteer at my kids' schools, church, and I serve at booster clubs," Nyhammer told the judge, according to a court transcript. "I believe I'm innocent of these charges." Still, Nyhammer was willing to accept an Alford plea to one of the charges -- signing a false absentee certificate -- in which she proclaimed her innocence but admitted there might be enough evidence to convict her. The other two charges would be dropped.
"There's no doubt in my mind, none, that neither you nor your daughter would intentionally vote twice in an election, no doubt," Jasper said at the hearing "There's also no doubt that it happened, and that's unfortunate." The judge declined to accept the plea, ordered Nyhammer to pay $200 in costs and eventually all three counts were dismissed.
McGrath of Minnesota Majority said the case fit the ACLU's criteria, which called for someone who was charged, indicted or convicted of a voter impersonation case. He said he would not question Nyhammer's testimony but said Nyhammer "must have forged the signature of her daughter." He added that an ID requirement would make that virtually impossible.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042