After an intensely partisan yearlong debate, the Minnesota Legislature has turned the future of the state's election system over to the public, which will vote in November on a constitutional amendment that would require voters to show a government-issued photo ID, establish a new "provisional" balloting system and eliminate election day "vouching."

This is an extremely important decision, one deserving a thoughtful public discussion over both the costs and benefits of these new voting requirements. Unfortunately, the debate at the Capitol amounted to a political food fight.

Opponents of the voter ID proposal accused supporters of disenfranchising seniors, college students, minorities and the poor. Proponents suggested that their opponents were simply trying to protect an election system fraught with fraud and open to manipulation. The hyperpartisan rhetoric did little to help inform public opinion.

It is time for local government leaders to contribute to this conversation -- not by picking sides and joining in the partisan battle, but by helping voters understand the issue's complexities.

Let me first lay a foundation of fact:

• Minnesota's local governments do an excellent job of administering fair and open elections, evidenced by the lack of any significant voter irregularity in our state.

• Minnesota has the highest voter turnout rate in the country, a source of state pride.

• Virtually all recorded voter irregularity in Minnesota is due to felons voting, and felons often have proper identification. Both proponents and opponents of voter ID agree that it would not address this issue in any way.

Despite our state's sterling reputation for fair elections, it's clear that a good number of Minnesotans are uncomfortable with the state's unique election-day rules.

Unregistered voters in our state can arrive at the polls and cast a live ballot without any proof of residency, beyond having a registered voter "vouch" for their eligibility. While there is no proof of significant abuse within this system, many argue the state should have stricter safeguards to catch fraudulent voters before their ballots are counted.

While the voter ID proposal would provide greater comfort to those concerned about this, there is no denying that it will come with significant costs.

Some of these costs are intangible: Voter ID would make the act of voting more difficult for those currently without a government-issued ID, as well as those who may lose their ID or have it stolen in the days leading up to an election day. For a state that prides itself on voter turnout and civic participation, this simply cannot be ignored.

But there is a more tangible cost to voter ID. If approved, this constitutional amendment would require the state to spend millions to provide free IDs to thousands of Minnesotans and to educate citizens on the state's new voting requirements.

In addition, local governments would need to implement provisional balloting, a process that allows voters who arrive at the polls without an ID to cast a ballot that would be counted only if they subsequently provided the necessary identification. This process would require local governments to print special ballots, purchase new equipment, hire and train additional election judges, and pay for storage and security of provisional ballots. Studies have shown that implementing a provisional balloting process will cost local governments -- and, in turn, property-tax payers -- millions of dollars every election season.

Ultimately, Minnesota voters must decide whether the benefits of voter ID are worth these additional costs. Some will always believe that removing every last voting irregularity should be a top priority, regardless of cost.

Others will look at Minnesota's history of fair and clean elections, and decide that the possible benefits of voter ID just aren't worth the cost during these times of deficits and financial uncertainty.

But this decision is too important to leave to partisan bickering. Changing the way we choose our elected officials carries far-reaching consequences, and such changes will be nearly impossible to undo once they are enshrined in the state's Constitution.

It is critical that we have an open and honest discussion about this issue to ensure that voters have properly weighed the true costs and benefits of voter ID before they cast their ballots in November.


Randy Maluchnik is a Carver County commissioner and president of the Association of Minnesota Counties.