A high-stakes political struggle over requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls is erupting in Minnesota, conjuring up emotional precedents from the notorious Jim Crow poll taxes to the old Chicago admonition to "vote early and often."

The determined Republican drive to pass a photo ID constitutional amendment as a needed deterrent to fraud -- and the equally strong DFL effort to oppose it as a partisan ploy to suppress votes -- has turned the ordinary driver's license into a symbol of our national divide.

"It's like we're back in slavery, only it's all of us this time,'' said Antoinette Oloko, an African-American woman at one of several protests against photo ID and news conferences at the Capitol in recent days.

"We've had cases of ineligible voters, convicted felons, voting when they shouldn't be,'' said Dan McGrath of the pro-ID group Minnesota Majority, who has collected pictures of voters' given "addresses" that turn out to be empty lots.

Minnesota's battle is emerging in a critical election year and follows two consecutive recount-close elections -- a clear sign of the impact that changes to state election law could have. The push for photo ID that began in Georgia and Indiana has now resulted in bills or initiatives passed in six other states, including Wisconsin, which holds its first photo ID election Feb. 21.

"Republicans are worried about the integrity of the process and the threat of fraud,'' said Doug Chapin, director of the elections administration program at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "Democrats worry about expanding the franchise and people having the right to vote. Voter ID ... is the place where those two conflicting views run headlong into one another."

To many people, showing an ID at the polls seems a minimal standard. "By golly, they check your ID to buy liquor,'' Marshall Schwartz said at last week's Republican precinct caucuses in Edina. "We can't do anything else without our ID,'' Linda Presthus added.

Minnesota is among 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, where there is no specific ID requirement for registered voters at the polling places, according the National Council of State Legislatures. An additional 23 states require IDs that do not include a photo or require a photo but allow voters to get around the requirement, usually by signing an affidavit.

It is in the eight states that have adopted a more strict photo ID requirement where the fraud-vs.-suppression debate is the loudest. But even in these states, free IDs have been offered and allowances have been made for special cases.

In Wisconsin, student IDs are acceptable with evidence of enrollment, a driver's license does not have to list the voter's current address and exceptions are set up for military voters and those living in care facilities, said Reid Magney of the Government Accountability Board. The law has not stopped same-day registration, as Minnesota officials fear.

In Georgia, the state still has "no-excuses absentee voting," which allows anyone to vote by mail without a photo ID, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office said. Opponents focus on the photo ID requirement as a hardship and a barrier.

The U.S. Justice Department has also weighed in on the debate. The department has challenged a photo ID law in South Carolina, saying it could limit the voting ability of "tens of thousands" of minority citizens. South Carolina is suing to overturn the decision. The 1965 Voting Rights Act requires states with a history of discrimination to get federal "pre-clearance" before changing their voting laws.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, which opposes photo ID laws, cites its survey showing that 11 percent of eligible voters do not possess a government-issued photo ID and that numbers are higher for elderly, minority and poor citizens. Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel for the center, said the new ID laws are part of a larger effort in some states that includes restricting voter-registration drives and limiting days for "early voting.''

Gaskins said restrictions in Florida eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, which African-American churches used for a Bible-to-ballot event called "souls to the polls."

Hans von Spakovsky, a photo ID advocate for the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the photo requirement can prevent a variety of abuses: voting under fictitious names, double-voting by people registered in two states and voting by immigrants who are in the country illegally.

"It's a very common-sense reform,'' he said.

Secretaries of state face off

Minnesota's debate may come down to a battle of secretaries of state.

"Does the government have the right to take away your right to vote just because you're old or you're young or because you lost your wallet on Election Day?" said DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, an outspoken critic of voter identification.

Leading the charge for photo ID is his predecessor, Mary Kiffmeyer, now a Republican state representative from Big Lake. Kiffmeyer carried the ID bill vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton last year and this year will submit it to voters as a proposed constitutional amendment. That would allow the Republican-controlled Legislature to circumvent Dayton's veto pen.

"I'm a nurse, and I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,'' Kiffmeyer said. "I do believe this will spare us from all sorts of problems. I think we have an honest intent.''

According to Ritchie's office, 215,0000 registered Minnesota voters lack a state driver's license or state identification card or list an address different from that on voter registration forms. His office points to the costs and trouble elderly people have in acquiring birth certificates and marriage and divorce documents.

At last week's anti-ID demonstration in the Capitol rotunda, the Rev. Celester Webb, pastor of the United Church of God and Christ in St. Paul, worried about his 83-year-old mother, Fannie, a black Minnesota resident who was born poor in the South before the civil rights era. She would have to find her birth certificate in order to come up with a photo ID, he said, and she has never had one, her son said. "It's almost like they're trying to take her back in time, to a place where she didn't have that freedom,'' Webb said.

There are some hopes to break through the partisan lines. Rhode Island, controlled by Democrats, was able to pass a phased-in photo ID requirement. And Ritchie said lawmakers at the Capitol have begun discussing a bipartisan bill that could satisfy both sides.

"There's an opportunity for the kind of careful work that could get us to a broad bipartisan agreement that addresses people's concerns, that addresses new technologies that are available," he said.

Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report. Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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