In late October, two weeks before the election, amid the glut of attack ads, a TV commercial appeared in Minnesota that grabbed everyone’s attention. It opens on former Governor Arne Carlson, a Republican, who is a familiar and beloved figure in the state, looking into the camera. “This voter-restriction amendment is way too costly,” he tells viewers. An image of $100 bills flashes to his right. Carlson’s jowls quiver as he solemnly shakes his head. An American flag hangs behind his shoulder. Fade and cut to Mark Dayton, the state’s current governor, a Democrat, on the right half of the screen. “And it would keep thousands of seniors from voting,” Dayton continues, his Minnesota accent especially thick. As he speaks, a black-and-white photo of a forlorn elderly woman appears.
In a year when the two parties seemed to agree on little except their mutual distaste for each other, here was a split-screen commercial with a Democrat and a Republican, the only bipartisan TV spot Minnesotans would see. The two trade talking points, Carlson focusing on the financial burden, Dayton highlighting the various groups who would be disenfranchised, until the split screen vanishes, revealing the two governors side by side in front of the Minnesota Capitol*. “If you’re a Democrat, Republican, or independent please vote no—this is not good for Minnesota,” Carlson closes.
The target of the ad was a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would require Minnesotans to present a government-issued photo ID before they could vote. When the Republican-controlled state legislature first considered the amendment in 2011, its passage was a near certainty—more than 80 percent supported it, as large a consensus as one can find in politics. Local voting-rights groups had concluded that fighting the amendment was a lost cause. The state’s liberal organizations were putting their efforts into challenging an anti-same-sex-marriage amendment that Republicans had also put on the ballot.
National voting-rights groups, though, were worried about the repercussions of photo ID becoming law in Minnesota. It’s one thing for voters in a deep red state to overwhelmingly approve photo ID, as Mississippi did in 2011. But Minnesota is supposed to be different. It has the highest voter turnout in the country. It adopted same-day registration in 1974, the second state do so. “Minnesota has a history of exceedingly careful and exceedingly competent election administration,” says Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and an authority on election law. “It’s a state I like to point to as one of the leaders in the country.” If photo ID passed in Minnesota, advocates worried, Republicans could pursue voter-ID laws anywhere.
“We were winning that battle,” says Mary Kiffmeyer, the Republican state representative who introduced the amendment, “except that Arne Carlson and Dayton got in. When I saw that particular ad, I thought, ‘It’s just going to be too much.’” The two governors reminded Minnesotans of their better nature, their trusting nature, of their Midwestern faith that voters are not strangers but neighbors. What could be more bipartisan than opposing a law to restrict the people’s ability to partake in democracy? After the ad appeared, undecided voters swung to oppose the amendment. Sixty-six newspapers endorsed a no vote; only the tiny Fairmont Sentinel supported the amendment. Our Vote Our Future, the umbrella organization formed to defeat the amendment, couldn’t keep pace with the rush of people offering to volunteer their time.
On Election Day, the stark rural-urban divide that usually defines Minnesota politics evaporated. From the bohos in Uptown Minneapolis to the cake-eaters in Edina, out to the Iron Range and up to the Boundary Waters, Minnesotans rejected the amendment 54 percent to 46 percent.
For 20 years, the norm in Minnesota politics has been divided government, with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party holding the majority in the state senate since 1976 and Republicans controlling the governorship since 1990 (save the four-year term of political wild card Jesse Ventura). The 2010 midterms reversed the balance. A Democrat, former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, was elected governor, and Republicans flipped lopsided Democratic advantages in the state house and senate into GOP majorities.
Over the same 20 years, the Minnesota GOP reinvented itself. Until 1995 its official name was the Independent-Republican Party, an attempt to dissociate from its national counterparts. Since dropping the label, the party—once a home for Rockefeller Republicans—has become dominated by its right-wing base. “What we’ve clearly seen is an alignment of the party with the national trend of where the Republican Party has moved,” says David Schultz, a business and law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul and former executive director for Common Cause Minnesota. “We’ve seen the Republican Party of Minnesota become the party of Michele Bachmann. There’s no question that Arne Carlson wouldn’t be able to get the nomination, and maybe even Tim Pawlenty couldn’t get the governor’s nomination.”
Dayton and the new Republican legislators quarreled from the start. Disagreements over a budget shortfall led to the longest state government shutdown in U.S. history—20 days—in the summer of 2011. Though elected on a platform of reining in the budget, Republicans soon shifted their attention to social matters.
Fearing Dayton would veto their legislative proposals, Republicans found a workaround. They would bypass the governor by proposing constitutional amendments, which would go directly on the ballot as referendums. In 2011, the legislature approved an amendment banning gay marriage. A year later, it passed an amendment requiring voters to have photo ID. The procedures would have to be clarified with enabling legislation, but the wording of the amendment made it among the most restrictive voter-ID laws in the country. Both amendments would be on the ballot in November 2012.
Republicans had every reason to believe that photo ID would be an easy win. National poll after national poll shows that the majority of the country sees nothing wrong with demanding photographic identification from voters. On the surface it seems like the simplest of notions: People should prove their identity before society allows them to vote. How is the nice little old lady checking the list of registered voters supposed to know if the stranger standing before her is who he claims? A government-issued photo ID is the only proof that passes muster. After all, we’re expected to show photo ID on a regular basis. We have to produce an ID to board a plane or buy a Powerball ticket.
“If you ask the question in the abstract—should people show ID?—the answer is overwhelmingly yes,” says Justin Levitt. “It makes sense, because the instinct is that people should be asked to show who they are, which I think nobody disagrees with. The real disagreement is over how.”
The argument sounds so rational that it puts voting-rights advocates on the defensive, though they have plenty of reason to fear photo ID as the base level of proof. As advocates point out, minorities, the poor, the transient, young people, and the elderly lack photo ID at higher rates than the general public—in short, the groups that skew Democratic. And that fraud Republicans fear, the one a photo ID is supposed to prevent? It’s nearly nonexistent. You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to catch someone casting a fraudulent vote. There have been ten documented cases of voter impersonation in the country since 2000, according to an analysis by Carnegie-Knight Initiative’s News21. Minnesota has recorded zero cases of voter impersonation; the only documented fraud is ineligible felons voting (fewer than 200 cases in the past decade), a crime photo ID would not deter.
By the time Republicans passed the amendment in April, liberal organizations in Minnesota had all but decided that fighting the amendment was futile; even reliable Democratic voters favored photo ID. One of the few dissenters was Dan McGrath, the 35-year-old executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, a grassroots group that focuses on economic and racial issues.
While Republicans debated the amendment in the legislature last spring, McGrath brought a proposal to Minnesotans for a Fair Economy (MFE), an umbrella organization of progressive groups that challenges the influence of big banks. Once a month the steering committee—three locals of SEIU, an interfaith group called ISAIAH, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, UFCW 1189, Jewish Community Action, the state federation of the AFL-CIO, and TakeAction—gather at the SEIU Healthcare Minnesota offices just outside downtown St. Paul. McGrath wanted Minnesotans for a Fair Economy to lead a week of lobbying and protesting at the state capitol.
Although everyone shared McGrath’s views on the dire consequences of the photo-ID bill, he faced skepticism about his proposal. No one wanted to waste time and energy on a doomed campaign. “There was a general sense that this was not a winnable fight,” says Javier Morillo, the president at SEIU Local 26, who, by his own description, was the biggest skeptic within MFE. “I thought we had a greater chance of diluting our 1 percent message than of moving the ball forward on voter ID.”
MFE approved McGrath’s proposal. With little money or support from the liberal establishment, they needed to remove the aura of inevitability surrounding the approval of the amendment. Thanks to the group’s actions, the local press began to refer to voter ID as “the controversial amendment.” When the amendment cleared the legislature, polls showed that support had dropped by 7 percent. “A couple weeks into the work I e-mailed [McGrath] saying I love being wrong like this,” Morillo says. A week after the amendment passed the legislature, MFE launched Our Vote Our Future, the organization that would oppose the amendment.
“A typical electoral campaign is a top-down structure,” McGrath says. “There’s a manager, the manager hires staff, staff execute the plan. In this instance, we didn’t have a campaign manager join the team until August. We had to rely on coalition members to be able to reach into their own networks, their own constituencies, and talk to people.” Even as the prospects began to improve, Our Vote Our Future didn’t follow the rules of a traditional campaign. Everyone on staff received their salaries from a separate group—SEIU funding the campaign manager, TakeAction and ISAIAH providing the bulk of the field operation. “Given where we started in the polls,” McGrath says, “fundraising early on was very, very difficult.”
What should have been a weakness—an unwieldy collection of groups each with its own interests—ended up becoming Our Vote Our Future’s key advantage. By Election Day, Our Vote Our Future had amassed a coalition of more than 80 groups that had spoken to more than 400,000 voters about the amendment. The AARP joined. Minnesota PIRG. The ACLU. The League of Women Voters. Our Vote Our Future brought in groups that wouldn’t normally dive into elections, each tailoring its message to a specific constituency. Advocates for ending domestic violence lent a hand because many women in shelters lack an ID with a current address. The Land Stewardship, which organizes farmers, joined the cause since rural districts with mail-in voting might need to overhaul operations.
“Even before we knew what to say to voters, before we had our message, we assembled a coalition of trusted messengers,” McGrath says. “When you’re going to ask someone to second--guess what they think is common sense, the credibility of the person talking to them matters a lot.”
Still, the campaign had to settle on a message, and Our Vote Our Future knew that conventional political strategy wouldn’t be enough. “It’s antithetical to the way campaigns are normally run that you would spend time trying to persuade your opponents,” McGrath says. “We didn’t have a choice on this one. We had to talk to those who were planning to vote for the yes.”
In campaigns against photo ID, the standard line of attack has been first to disprove voter fraud. This is almost always an uphill battle, though; conservatives have successfully convinced the public that fraud is prevalent. Our Vote Our Future issued a directive to its canvassers: “Don’t say the F-word.” There was no point, the group concluded, to cutting down the trope conservatives had erected over the years. “All conservatives wanted to talk about was fraud, fraud, fraud. Didn’t matter that they didn’t have any evidence,” McGrath says. “We were campaigning against years of them poisoning the well. Most people believed fraud was a problem. They might be wrong, but it is what it is. Making a campaign-wide commitment to not say the F-word was really important because it threw conservatives for a loop.”
The other standard argument would be to focus on whom the law would exclude from voting, especially African Americans and Latinos. “The other side is running implicitly or explicitly on race,” says McGrath, “on the anxiety lots of working-class whites have on changing racial demographics. You’ve got to be mindful of that, be thoughtful of how to contend on those grounds.” Our Vote Our Future’s literature highlighted segments of the population that tend to struggle under photo-ID requirements but that hadn’t received a lot of attention: senior citizens and active-duty military members. One of the campaign’s first TV ads in October featured Alex Erickson, a young veteran of the Iraq War. “When you put it all on the line defending freedom, nobody should take a basic freedom away from you,” Erickson told viewers, saying that the legislature “screwed it up” by not explicitly including military IDs in the amendment.
Our Vote Our Future’s breakthrough, however, came by adopting an argument usually associated with conservatives: that the amendment was too costly, a waste of government resources. “We tend to think of voting rights being about the civil-rights movement. I think there’s a different progressive argument to make, which is about good governance,” says Morillo. “Some people felt that the message wasn’t progressive enough, but I fundamentally disagree.”
Pointing out the added financial drain of a photo-ID law wasn’t new, but it’s an argument usually raised while the legislature debates a bill, not one presented to sway the public. A study by the Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota found that the total costs of the amendment—spread over the state and local governments and individuals—would range from $52 million to $150 million. “It was really an explosive strategy to shift the debate and say this is not about civil rights,” says David Schultz, who co-authored the study, “but that this is about costs.”
The final element to Our Vote Our Future’s strategy relied on Minnesotans’ faith in their voting system. The desire for the amendment was always something of a contradiction: Minnesotans were proud of their election system and its long history of accessibility, yet the law, which was supposed to protect that system, would fundamentally alter it. In recent elections, Minnesota turnout has averaged more than 67 percent—it rises to the upper 70s in presidential years—tops in the nation for the past eight elections. “Minnesotans take an incredible pride in the fact that we have the highest voter turnout in the United States,” says Schultz. “There really is this civic consciousness in terms of believing in engagement and voting.” Minnesota is one of eight states with same-day registration. Although not stated directly, the amendment would have ended same-day registration for many voters. “We began to make the case for our voting system, which a lot of people had taken for granted,” says Morillo. “This would be a radical restructuring of our election system in a way that had not been thought through.”
By early October support for the amendment had dropped, though it still had a commanding lead. Survey USA had it passing 53 to 40. Once polls showed the gap closing, money and volunteers poured into Our Vote Our Future. George Soros’s Open Society Policy Center donated $500,000, and the National Education Association chipped in $300,000, which allowed Our Vote Our Future to run the Dayton-Carlson ad. “Those two standing together—talk about trusted messengers,” says McGrath. “Both men just have a lot of credibility in the state, period.” Momentum was on the anti-amendment side, but it was still a race to reach enough voters before Election Day. Public Policy Polling’s survey the weekend before the election still had the amendment passing by a slight margin.
The amendment wasn’t the GOP’s sole defeat that day. Voters rejected the anti-gay-marriage amendment as well. Republicans lost their majorities in the house and senate. Democrats are already discussing ways to reform Minnesota’s election process to make it easier to vote, such as adding early voting. The repercussions of the amendment’s loss went beyond Minnesota’s borders, though. National groups, which had feared the amendment’s passage, have taken note of Our Vote Our Future’s ability to reframe the argument against photo ID as a financial issue and sway voters outside the liberal base. The national GOP likely won’t ditch its support for voter ID anytime soon, but the party can no longer assume that the public is automatically on its side. “One of the big talking points of voter-ID proponents has been that these laws are supported by everyone,” says Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Voting Wars. “This is at least evidence that things are changing.”
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed that the two governors stood before a painting of the Capitol building. They in fact filmed the ad in front of the actual Capitol.