Not all of last month's scares for democracy had a D.C. address. In St. Paul, the state Senate's Republican majority unleashed an election-policy zombie that may not be able to cause much trouble this year but is clearly not as dead as many democracy-loving Minnesotans thought.
I'm talking about state Sen. Scott Newman's bill that would require Minnesota voters to present an up-to-date government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
That old thing? Didn't Minnesota voters kill a proposed voter-ID constitutional amendment in 2012?
Voters eight years ago did indeed strike the amendment with what I thought was a killer blow, defeating it by a solid 54-46%. But for Newman, R-Hutchinson, and all the other Republicans on the state Senate's Committee on State Government Finance and Policy and Elections, those voters' judgments are evidently to be regarded as temporary. Or disregarded entirely.
As Newman explained at the committee's Jan. 27 hearing, the amendment vote was then. This is now, with a new cast of characters at the Capitol and a new approach. He's trying for a statute, not a constitutional change. He does not propose going to the voters a second time.
His bill's chances are not good this year or next, with photo-ID opposing DFLers in charge in the state House and the governor's office. But Newman & Co. are making plain their intention to impose a photo ID requirement if they are fully in charge at the State Capitol after the 2022 election.
In Minnesota of all places, that desire ought to set off alarm bells. One might claim (as former Secretary of State Joan Growe and I did in our 2020 book "Turnout: Making Minnesota the State that Votes") that this is the state that high voter turnout built. A deep and wide commitment to civic participation has won Minnesota more than turnout bragging rights after each national election. High turnout has also forged strong bonds of responsiveness and accountability between the people and their government.
As a result, Minnesota's state and local government have been more effective tools for solving shared problems than are their counterparts in many other parts of the country. Problems persist here, to be sure, but Minnesotans typically don't respond to those problems with despair. They call on their governments to act, and government officials know that they fail to respond at their political peril.
By itself, Minnesotans' affinity for voting ought to be sufficient to quash vote-restricting proposals like voter ID. But there are more reasons to say to no (again) to voter ID:
• Newman said he's bringing voter ID back because of its potential to "detect, deter and prevent" fraud. But the only kind of fraud an ID requirement detects is voter impersonation, which is exceedingly rare in this state and is already a felony crime.
• Newman claimed that a photo ID requirement would increase voter confidence in election security and thereby boost turnout. But Minnesota's nation-leading 80% turnout in 2020 suggests that confidence is not lacking.
• Newman said the requirement would impose no significant burden on those without ID cards, since his bill provides that such cards will be issued free of charge. But the need to obtain them is itself a burden. Think about the elderly whose driver's licenses have lapsed, the young adults who move frequently, the urban poor who do not drive, the Black elderly who were born in the rural South and hence have no birth certificate.
• Newman said the requirement won't scuttle Election Day registration, which for nearly a half-century has been a popular convenience for Minnesota voters. But his measure would require that Election Day registrants without a photo ID cast provisional ballots, then return to a county office within seven days with his preferred proof of identity to release their ballot for counting. In other states with similar requirements, a large share of provisional ballots regularly go uncounted.
The senator from Hutchinson added that his move has nothing to do with his party's unproven allegations about election fraud in 2020. He noted that he started his push for photo ID's resuscitation during the COVID-disrupted 2020 legislative session.
That he did. Nevertheless, his bill is in keeping with a national pattern. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reported on Jan. 26 that around the country, state legislators have introduced 106 bills to restrict access to the polls, triple the number of such measures seen at this time last year.
It's enough to make the analysis of freshman DFL Rep. Emma Greenman of Minneapolis ring true.
"This isn't about voter security," said Greenman, an attorney who as director of voting rights and democracy for the Center for Popular Democracy spent the past five years opposing vote suppression measures around the country. "This is about seeding doubts in the entire democratic system.
"It should be a fundamental axiom of our democracy that every eligible person should be able to vote without impediment and that every vote should count. Now, it seems that's up for debate. And when that happens, you get what happened on Jan. 6," the violent attempted takeover of the U.S. Capitol.
Greenman is sponsoring a countermeasure in the DFL-controlled House. It's a multifaceted bill to allow for automatic voter registration at government service offices, preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, re-enfranchisement of felons when they leave incarceration and a whole lot more.
Like Newman's bill, Greenman's does not stand much chance in this year's divided Legislature. Still, it deserves notice now, while Minnesotans are freshly aware that even in The State That Votes, democracy's preservation requires vigilance.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.