In Minnesota, Voting Blind on Voter ID

The fifth in a Prospect series on the 174 ballot measures up for a vote this November.

Across the country, most voter-ID wars have unfolded in legislative chambers and courtrooms. But in Minnesota, a whole new battleground has opened as voters decide whether to put a photo ID-requirement into the state constitution.

The constitutional amendment passed through the Republican-controlled legislature, but was foiled by a veto from Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. Now, it's up to voters to decide whether they want to put new burdens on themselves and fellow voters.

The catch? Voters won't get any say about what those burdens will look like—flexible, with several forms of photo ID allowed, or super-strict, with only one or two kinds acceptable? Whichever party wins the state legislature in November will likely get to set the rules. If the Democrats win, the law could be relaxed, whereas conservatives would likely push to make the law as restrictive as they possibly can without incurring another veto from Dayton.

The wording on the ballot sounds innocuous enough: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo ID to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013?"

But the devil is in the details when it comes to voter ID laws. What types of ID are acceptable, which groups are exempted, and other specifics matter tremendously, especially for certain demographics—like the elderly or students—that are less likely to have a valid in-state ID. Making allowances for different types of photo IDs, like military or student IDs, can make an enormous difference in whether these provisions create undue burdens on voters. While many support voter-ID laws in theory, the details can lead to disenfranchisement.

As many as 215,000 state voters could be affected by the law, according to Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office, depending on the strictness of the details. While up to 84,000 do not have an ID, the rest are voters whose IDs do not show their current voting address. Of course, it’s not clear whether IDs will be required to show a voter’s correct address.

Minnesota has traditionally had progressive voting laws, including same-day voter registration, and many credit such laws for the state’s consistently high turnout. If passed, Ritchie has argued many of the state's provisions could be nullified. For instance, the amendment specifies that "All voters, including those not voting in person, must be subject to substantially equivalent identity and eligibility verification prior to a ballot being cast or counted." Ritchie says that requirement could threaten same-day registration, because to verify eligibility, the state would need to send a postcard to the voter's residence, which obviously isn't possible if a person is trying to vote that day. Ritchie says a similar problem may face those voters using mail-in ballots; currently there's no "substantially equivalent identity and elibility verification" process for those not voting in-person. If the legislature cannot find a solution, the implications could be enormous. More than 500,000 people registered on Election Day in Minnesota in 2008, while around 200,000 vote by mail.

There are no exemptions written into the amendment and no provisions allow for expired IDs, which has some elderly advocates scared. Many nursing homes rely on “vouching” for those patients who no longer have IDs. In many cases, facility workers will come with those voters and vouch for them; such practices would almost undoubtedly be banned if the amendment passes. 

College students are similarly concerned by the lack of specifics. It’s unclear whether student IDs would be accepted at all, but if they are, will that include private colleges or just state universities? The question is particularly relevant to students from out-of-state who might have to get new IDs if the amendment passes.

Defeating the amendment will be an uphill struggle for voting rights advocates. A second ballot measure battle in the state over a ban on gay marriage has consumed most of the limelight and a whole lot of the spending. And Voter ID laws tend to be popular, despite any evidence of a widespread voter fraud problem. Dan MacGrath, one of the pro-amendment leaders who heads ProtectMyVote.com, spoke at the 2012 True the Vote summit, according to an agenda from the event. True the Vote is one of the most controversial groups this election, alleging voter fraud just about everywhere and garnering many accusations of voter intimidation.

But support could be waning. During the summer and through early September, support for the amendment leapt to 30-point leads. But an October 15 poll from Survey USA shows support has dropped, with 53 percent of respondents approving the measure while 40 percent did not. Public Policy Polling showed an even tighter battle; among its poll of likely voters, the amendment only led 51-43. Money has not been a huge factor; in July reports, neither side in the voter ID battle had raised more than $200,000.

Things could come down to the wire, as voters decide just how important their own rights are.

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