"I think it's a privilege. It's not a right," Minnesota GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers said about voting during an Easter recess radio interview.
He soon backtracked, as opponents of a GOP-sponsored change in voting requirements pounced on his words.
Zellers did well to recant. No other individual right is as clearly guaranteed in the state and federal constitutions to all citizens of eligible age and residency. This state's nation-leading voter turnout attests to how deeply Minnesotans value that promise.
Yet whether intentional or not, Zellers' misstatement aptly describes the consequences of a GOP initiative that's likely to land on the 2012 ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment. It would make voting harder for thousands of Minnesotans -- those who are already underrepresented at the polls.
GOP legislators here and around the country are making a concerted push to require voters to present a government-issued photo ID card at the polls before registering to vote or receiving a ballot.
Election Day registration using utility bills or the sworn voucher of a neighbor to prove residency, allowed since 1974, would be eliminated. Those who cannot produce a valid ID card on Election Day would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot, then would need to appear at a government office within one week with the requisite ID in order for the ballot to be counted.
These are not trivial changes, though they may seem so to the majority of Minnesotans who routinely carry driver's licenses in their billfolds. They may think that nearly everyone does.
They also may have swallowed the GOP argument that Minnesota's elections are rife with fraud, and that a photo ID requirement is a needed remedy.
Those are faulty assumptions. Republican sponsors of "voter ID" bills cite one state agency's estimate that 140,000 Minnesotans lack a valid driver's license or state-issued ID card.
That number has been challenged as too low by the bills' opponents, who point to a recent national survey that found that 11 percent of U.S. citizens do not have up-to-date government-issued photo identification. In Minnesota, 11 percent of the voting-age population is 440,000 people.
They are elderly people who no longer drive, or never did; disabled people; young adults; the poor; soldiers just back from overseas assignments whose driver's licenses have expired; college students who aren't living in dormitories (the bills make allowances for voting by those in official college housing), and anyone who recently moved but who still meets the only residency requirement now in state law: A voter must have lived in Minnesota for 30 days before an election.
Consider the likely party preferences of people in some of those categories, and you'll see one reason why Republicans are so keen to impose a voter ID requirement, while the bills have yet to receive a single DFL vote.
That fact alone puts the bills at risk of a veto by Gov. Mark Dayton. And that risk inspired Republican legislators last week to introduce a voter ID constitutional amendment, which would not require Dayton's approval. A simple majority vote by the Legislature would send the question to the ballot.
Those who believe that a photo ID requirement would prevent voter fraud are also mistaken. It would have no impact on the only kind of illegal voting seen with any frequency in Minnesota -- voting by felons on probation whose civil rights have yet to be restored. Nothing revealed on their driver's licenses would deny them a ballot.
Proponents of the voter ID bills say their goal is not to deny the vote to anyone but to modernize the state's voting system. That's not an unworthy goal. But it's one that Minnesota's cadre of experienced, nonpartisan county election administrators ought to take the lead in pursuing.
Instead, a number of election administrators past and present vigorously oppose voter ID bills.
So do the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, and several dozen advocacy groups for the poor and elderly.
When voices with their credibility about elections say a unanimous "no," Minnesotans ought to be on notice: This idea is worse than it seems.
* * *