A Republican effort to tighten the state's election system by requiring photo IDs and standardizing eligibility requirements was rejected by Minnesota voters Tuesday.
The proposed photo ID constitutional amendment, a concept that was favored by 80 percent in polls last year, had the support of only 46 percent of voters, with 98 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday.
"It's not looking great right now," Dan McGrath, leader of ProtectMyVote.com, the main pro-photo ID organization, said late Tuesday, before a surge of precincts reported results that made it clear the ballot measure would fail. "It's going to be tough to turn it around at this point."
Hours later, the Associated Press declared the amendment dead. The combined "no" votes and ballots on which the amendment was skipped outnumbered "yes" votes by nearly 179,000, with 98 percent of precincts in.
"This will go down as a historic moment in political history," U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minneapolis, told photo ID opponents. Ellison was a vocal opponent of the proposed amendment and, along with a number of DFLers, characterized it as a voter-suppression tactic
The defeat represents a major setback for the photo ID movement after a string of victories across the country. And it is a victory for liberal groups that rallied the opposition, arguing that the fine print of the amendment would have a devastating effect on an electoral system that has consistently made Minnesota a leader nationwide in voter turnout.
"It looked like a slam dunk even a month or six weeks ago,'' said state Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, an assistant minority leader who helped lead the charge against the amendment. But, he said, as voters considered the costs and complexity, and the fact that the amendment was to be put into the state Constitution, it steadily lost support.
"I think details matter," Simon said. "The more you look, the less you like."
At a somber gathering for the pro-ID group at O'Gara's Bar and Grill in St. Paul, McGrath said a campaign by opponents raising false fears about the amendment had been effective.
McGrath's own polls showed that once-strong support among the elderly was "plummeting" in the last few weeks, as was support among women.
He blamed what he called a "fear-mongering message" promoted by opponents. "It's senior citizens won't be able to vote. Soldiers won't be able to vote. Students won't be able to vote. [Voters are] afraid it comes with all of this excess baggage," he said. "Which it doesn't." Opponents said supporters misled voters and, in particular, downplayed the ultimate cost to state and local governments for overhauling the voter system.
At a more celebratory gathering of Our Vote Our Future, which led the coalition of groups opposed to the amendment, Gov. Mark Dayton called the proposed ID amendment "an attempt to hijack the 2014 election for the Republican Party. It's just shameful."
Dayton said defeating the measure would be "almost a Wellstonian victory," referring to the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone and his 1990 upset Senate victory.
Photo ID opponent Sarah Peters nibbled cookies with an eye on the voter ID amendment results Tuesday night, which showed a seven-point margin in her side's favor. "I had a good feeling that voters would stand up and think about people who could get disenfranchised, but I was surprised to see 55, 56 percent," she said.
The proposed amendment would require in-person voters to show government-issued photo identification. But it also would set up a new system of two-step "provisional" voting for those without the required ID. It would require "substantially equivalent identity and eligibility verification" for all voters, with unknown effects on Election Day registration. It also would end the process of "vouching," which allows one registered voter to swear -- under penalty of perjury -- to the residency of a voter in that precinct who lacks proof.
The specifics of the procedure -- what IDs are acceptable, how provisional balloting would work and how military and absentee voting could continue under a "substantially equivalent" requirement -- would remain to be hammered out by the 2013 Legislature.
The vote is a milestone in a lengthy, national battle that has been called the "voting wars" by election law expert Richard Hasen, of the University of California, Irvine Law School. Since the furor over the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore battle of 2000 subsided, Republicans and conservatives began agitating for stricter voting curbs at the state level, mainly in the form of a strict photo ID requirement for voters who already are registered.
What might seem at first blush a reasonable requirement, considering the near-universal use of driver's licenses in daily commerce, became entangled in election law and partisan politics. Because the GOP has not produced evidence in any state of voters casting ballots in other people's names -- the one type of "impersonation" fraud an ID would stop -- Democrats concluded the photo ID movement was really an attempt make it more difficult for students, the poor and the elderly to vote.
Four states have strict photo ID laws, while five more have passed laws but not yet put them into effect due to court challenges and civil rights concerns.
At last count, Minnesota and 20 other states had no ID requirement for registered voters.
Staff writers Abby Simons and Chao Xiong contributed to this report. Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042