A billboard along a busy interstate proclaimed the state "#1 in voter fraud." A sitting governor fingered felons for tilting an election. A national pundit blamed fraudulent votes for the passage of national health-care reform.

Could this be Minnesota we're talking about?

Once praised as the gold standard for ethics in government and election administration, Minnesota's voting system is under fire from those who say the state's election integrity is at stake.

"Our purpose is to pierce the myth that there is no voter fraud in Minnesota," said Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority and the pro-photo-ID affiliate ProtectMyVote.com. "It's simply not true. ... We've been turning a blind eye to fraud in Minnesota for so long it astonishes me." The solution, he said, is the constitutional amendment that would require voters to present government-issued photo identification before voting.

The state's election officials defend Minnesota's reputation for ethics and fairness, while acknowledging human error and what they contend are extremely rare instances of fraudulent voting. McGrath's opponents accuse him of blowing up minor bureaucratic snafus into phony scandals, of conducting shoddy research that sends prosecutors on wild-goose chases and of undermining confidence in the system to pursue a partisan agenda. McGrath, critics say, is part of a national movement that they have dubbed the "fraudulent fraud squad."

"Tell me there were 6,000 little green men that came down from the space ships and registered," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, a DFLer whose office prosecutes voting fraud and who is campaigning against photo ID.

But McGrath's dogged research, which finds its way into Republican talking points, has raised a provocative question: Whether a system with election-day registration, "vouching" for voters without proof of residence and no ID requirement for pre-registered voters is too "Minnesota nice" for its own good.

Ineligible felons

The billboard, which stood until recently along Interstate 94 near Albertville, aimed a yellow we're-Number-One finger directly at the state's good-government heritage. It was based on McGrath's project to identify felons who had voted in 2008 even though they had not completed all the terms of their sentences.

Felons in Minnesota lose the right to vote upon conviction, but regain it once they complete their sentences, including parole and probation. Some wind up voting before they are legally eligible. In a 2011 report, McGrath counted 113 such convictions for illegal felon voting during the 2008 election. The amount may seem inconsequential, but that year's U.S. Senate race was decided by 312 votes.

McGrath said many more felons -- 1,099 -- voted while still ineligible in 2008, but were not charged because the law says the act must be intentional.

His research went viral in July 2010, when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty told Fox News that McGrath's group had "credible evidence" that voting by ineligible felons might have "tipped" the 2008 U.S. Senate election to Democrat Al Franken, whose vote was critical in passing the Democratic agenda in a closely divided Senate. The argument was picked up in the book "Who's Counting" by national fraud activist John Fund, who asks: "Would Obamacare have passed without voter fraud?"

But Freeman said that once his office started investigating, they found many names submitted by McGrath from the 2008 election to be incorrect. Ultimately, the county charged 38 felons who voted before their rights were restored -- less than 1/100th of 1 percent of the roughly 665,000 votes cast.

Freeman said he believes most of those convictions were the result of mistakes, not attempts to influence the election.

Beth Fraser, director of governmental affairs for the Secretary of State's office, noted that in 2009 the Legislature passed a bipartisan bill that might have had a greater effect on voting by felons -- a bill that would have required the state to notify felons of the status of their voting rights. Such a bill could have made it easier to prove intent, resulting in more convictions, but Pawlenty vetoed it.

Right solution?

If voting by felons is Minnesota's main voter fraud problem, it is unclear whether photo ID is the solution. Ineligible felons can and do carry valid government-issued IDs and currently there is no way to flag them at the polling place.

When voters register on Election Day, postal verification cards are mailed to their given addresses after the election to verify their residence. Some are returned as undeliverable. McGrath says 6,224 such postcards were returned from Election Day registrants in 2008.

"This is the biggest area of concern for me," said McGrath. "We don't know who those voters are. We don't know where they live." To McGrath, this is the perfect argument for a photo ID requirement that would nail down a voter's identity before he or she votes.

But Fraser said there are legitimate explanations for all such returned verification cards, and said there is no evidence to support the notion these are phantom voters. "That number is bogus," she said of McGrath's claim.

She said her research shows that many of McGrath's 6,224 either did not vote in the 2008 election, were victims of postal carrier error, moved without a forwarding address or were homeless, living in shelters or with friends. She said any names that appear to be truly questionable -- 399 in the year 2010 -- are referred to prosecutors for investigation.

But perhaps the largest fraud concern is unproven and unprovable. Minnesota and nearly half the states require no ID at the polls for pre-registered voters. In Minnesota, these voters -- roughly 2.3 million in the 2008 presidential election -- sign an oath stating they are the named voter. A false statement can be prosecuted as a felony.

Then they vote.

McGrath contends that is not enough.

"Would you keep your money in a bank, that you didn't have to show ID to make withdrawals at the counter?" he said.

McGrath pointed out that there are deceased people who have not yet been purged from the registration list, and a person with those names could "create all kinds of mischief" without fear of discovery. A simple ID requirement would throw up a barrier to any voter impersonation, he said.

To which Freeman replies, "They're chasing after something that doesn't exist." Investigations and convictions for voter impersonation are virtually nonexistent, he said. Fraser said if impersonation occurs to any degree -- if Person A signs Person B's name and votes -- her office would be deluged with complaints, but they aren't.

The fight will go on no matter what happens to the photo ID constitutional amendment on Nov. 6, because the battle over election integrity vs. access is baked into the political discussion. McGrath defends his work and will remain at his computer terminal, picking away at the state's squeaky-clean image.

"Every possible avenue for fraud, there's evidence of it happening," he said.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042