I spent 24 years as Minnesota's secretary of state, working to preserve our long tradition of civic engagement and voter participation. But in the past few months, I have watched and listened as that tradition has come under attack, thanks to misleading attempts to rewrite the history of the 2008 election, and a misguided effort to rewrite Minnesota's Constitution.
And I've had just about enough.
The most recent salvo comes in a book written by John Fund and Hans von Spakovsky, in which the two partisan conservatives offer the fantastic allegation that illegal votes cast by ex-felons determined the outcome of the 2008 Senate race here in Minnesota -- which, as the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously held, Al Franken won by 312 votes.
This allegation is based on the "methodology" (a term I use loosely) of Minnesota Majority, a conservative group known for making sensational claims. For instance, they have claimed that more than 1,000 felons voted illegally in 2008.
"Minnesota Majority," says Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, "is like the person who claims to know a lot about medicine because they know how to look up the medical handbooks online."
His office investigated Minnesota Majority's allegation -- specifically that more than 450 felons voted illegally in Hennepin County. As Freeman says, "You can't just cross-reference a couple of databases and report what the computer spits out. You have to invest shoe leather and verify the results."
That's what he did. And only 38 of the 450 allegations turned out to be supported with enough evidence to merit charges -- less than 1/100 of 1 percent of the people who voted in Hennepin County.
Let's be clear about the facts of the 2008 election.
Three different panels spent eight months reviewing and adjudicating the election results -- and each ruled unanimously that Al Franken was the winner.
Half of the 12 judges who joined in these unanimous rulings were appointed by Republican governors, and they included Gov. Tim Pawlenty's law partner, an attorney for Pawlenty's campaign, an attorney for the Minnesota Republican Party, and even a donor to Sen. Norm Coleman's previous campaign.
Pawlenty himself signed the election certificate, saying that there was "no actual evidence that there's been any fraud or problems." And Coleman's attorney agreed that "there's no voter fraud, there's no election fraud."
I suppose it is understandable that, after such a close election, some partisans on the losing side would continue to look for ways to discredit the outcome. But Fund's and von Spakovsky's book is a conclusion (futilely) searching for evidence.
Still, inflammatory, unsupported claims like theirs have tempted many to support the voter ID amendment -- a solution in search of a problem.
Requiring voters to present photo identification will not itself prevent ex-felons or other illegal voters from registering to vote and then casting ballots. The amendment would, however, have unintended consequences for many legal voters. For instance, it would place hurdles in front of absentee voters seeking to cast their ballots from abroad -- including Minnesotans serving in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, eligible voters who don't have the right form of "valid government-issued" photo identification might have to drive as far as 80 miles to obtain it -- a daunting task for a senior citizen who doesn't drive and who lives in a nursing home on a fixed income.
In Wisconsin, where a version of this amendment passed, an 84-year-old woman named Ruthelle Frank, who has voted in every election since 1948, is eligible to vote -- nobody doubts that. But she has neither the right form of photo ID nor a certified copy of her birth certificate. She could get another copy from the state Register of Deeds -- but the record on file spells her maiden name (Wedepohl) incorrectly, and it might cost Ruthelle $200 or more to fix it.
A voter ID amendment wouldn't stop felons from voting. It would stop people like Ruthelle Frank from voting.
As someone who spent decades in charge of Minnesota's election system, I know that we must ensure that only legal votes are counted. But effectively disqualifying legal voters would be even more damaging to the integrity of our elections.
And while the amendment's backers have no persuasive evidence of widespread fraud (a national investigation by Carnegie-Knight's "News21" program found that voter fraud is "virtually nonexistent"), we do know that its passage would place hurdles in front of law-abiding Minnesotans wishing to cast legal ballots.
In a state where we are rightly proud of our clean elections and vigorous civic participation, allowing false allegations to frighten us into supporting such a flawed amendment would be a grievous mistake indeed.
Joan Growe was Minnesota's secretary of state from 1975 to 1999.