The "Show Me State" of Missouri has a lot to show Minnesota about the travails of trying to require voters to show a photo ID before casting ballots.

Short version: It won't be easy.

Six years after the law first passed in Missouri, the state's voter-friendly courts have kept photo ID and related election-law changes off the books and even off the ballot. Minnesota advocates on both sides have taken notice.

"It does show a path to success," said Mike Dean of Common Cause Minnesota, which opposes the election law changes and hopes to duplicate Missouri's record of blocking them in court.

"The Missouri legislature really screwed up," responds Dan McGrath of Minnesota Majority, which supports the photo ID requirements. "The Minnesota Legislature didn't make the same mistake."

The two states are on a parallel path. Both have Republican-controlled legislatures that support the photo ID requirements and Democratic governors who oppose such changes. Both have sought to skirt the governor's veto -- and court opposition -- by offering photo ID to voters as a proposed constitutional amendment.

Both states have faced similar legal challenges to their amendment language from anti-photo ID organizations.

What Minnesota learns from Missouri this year is an important step in the national debate over the nation's election systems. Like much of the country, the two states are sharply divided on the prevalence of voting fraud and the need for strict identification laws, even if some voters are inconvenienced or prevented from casting ballots at all.

Tale of two states

In Missouri, a perennial presidential battleground state, changes in voting laws are of national significance, and the photo ID battle has been particularly hard fought there.

"We've been going through it the whole time," Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan says of her tenure. A Democrat who took office in 2005, Carnahan has fought her state's many photo ID proposals, fearing they would disenfranchise those without the required IDs.

An all-Republican government passed Missouri's original photo ID law in 2006. The Missouri Supreme Court shot it down by a 6-1 vote. The issue then slumbered until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana's strict photo ID law in 2008. The Missouri General Assembly resurrected it as a proposed amendment to the state's Constitution.

Carnahan supports the state's existing ID policy, which allows voters to use a variety of documents to prove their identities. Strict photo ID, she noted, was found to restrict voting by the Missouri Supreme Court. "It was found to be an inappropriate restriction, an unconstitutional restriction, on people's voting rights," she said.

Missouri State Rep. Shane Schoeller, a Republican who sponsored the bill and who is running for secretary of state, says public support remains strong. "Voters just want to know that their identity is protected when they show up to vote," he said. He says if he wins, he will push the issue again next year.

In Minnesota, new Republican majorities in the House and Senate passed a strict photo ID bill in 2011 and sent it to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who promptly vetoed it. This year, the Legislature passed the same concept as a proposed constitutional amendment, which Dayton could not stop.

Legal obstacles

Minnesota and Missouri were moving the issue to their respective ballots this November when the legal challenges intervened.

In Missouri, the Advancement Project, a national voting rights organization, and other groups filed suit last year, saying the General Assembly misled voters in the way the ballot question was written. A circuit court judge agreed, calling the proposed ballot question "insufficient and unfair" and gave legislators time to rewrite it.

They did not do so, and the issue will not be on the Missouri ballot in November.

In Minnesota, Common Cause's Dean said Missouri's success influenced the Minnesota lawsuit strategy. "It's modeled after what Missouri put together," he said.

The Minnesota suit, filed by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and others, also claims that the ballot question does not fairly describe the underlying amendment. The Minnesota ballot question will ask whether the state should require "all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters."

It does not mention the creation of a two-step provisional voting system, that the ID that must be "government issued," and that voter registration laws will be tightened. Those provisions do not appear on the ballot, but would become part of the state's Constitution if the ballot question is approved.

Minnesota's staunch ID supporters, including Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, the sponsor of the amendment, are confident that the two states are quite different. She noted that Missouri legislators referred in their proposed amendment to the "Voter Protection Act," even though that law was not in effect.

"We feel there is no relation to that situation and ours," said Kiffmeyer. She noted that Minnesota's courts have traditionally given the Legislature wide latitude in writing the ballot question as they see fit, and those questions have always described "the core of the change," not every detail.

As the legal and political battle continues in both states, one goal of photo ID opponents may have been realized. The lawsuits and court decisions have drawn public attention to their position that photo ID laws could change the election system in ways far beyond the requirement that voters flash plastic at the polling place.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042