The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 2, 2012

Are Voter I.D. concerns overblown or real?

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

— If a majority of Minnesota voters approve a proposed amendment on Tuesday to change the rules for voting, Article VII Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution is going to get longer by two subsections.

That’s about all supporters and opponents of the amendment can agree on.

The first new subsection is the one that’s gotten most of the attention: “All voters voting in person must present valid government-issued photographic identification before receiving a ballot. ... ”

But it’s the second one that’s causing at least as much debate among people taking a closer look at the implications of the amendment: “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.”

Amendment opponents and elections officials in Minnesota say that provision could end Election Day registration and dramatically change absentee balloting, possibly impacting voting by soldiers serving overseas and eliminating mail-in balloting by rural townships.

Former Congressman Tim Penny of Waseca has signed on as co-chair of the organization “Our Vote Our Future” because he objects to the amendment for a variety of reasons, including the language to be added to the constitution that isn’t spelled out on Tuesday’s ballot.

“The amendment is a lot more involved and a lot more detailed that you would be led to believe by the wording of the (ballot) amendment,” Penny said.

Rep. Tony Cornish of Good Thunder thinks the concerns of opponents are overblown and suggests any problems can be fixed by lawmakers and the governor in 2013 after the amendment passes.

“Everything they are saying is a worst-case scenario, what could  happen,” Cornish said.

The photo ID part

The bulk of the discussion of the proposed amendment has been focused on the new requirement that voters must show a photo ID before getting a ballot, or — if they don’t have a government-issued photo ID — submit a provisional ballot that will be set aside and counted later only if the voter goes to the local elections office and shows a valid ID within a certain number of days after the election.

Amendment supporters say the requirement will make it harder for people to vote under a false name. Opponents say that virtually never happens anyway and that it will make voting more difficult for people who don’t have a photo ID.

Supporters say the requirement is no more severe that what is required for a variety of business transactions and that IDs will be provided at no charge for people who don’t have a driver’s license or state ID card.

 Opponents say taxpayers will get stuck with the cost of providing the free IDs; applicants would still have to get a copy of their birth certificate, marriage license or other supporting documents, which can cost money; and that it would be hardship — even if free — for the elderly and those with disabilities.

The “all voters” part

Subsection C — the last 26 words that the amendment would add to the constitution — is the part that has the potential to cause more widespread changes in Minnesota voting. It requires that “all voters” be subjected to “substantially equivalent identity and eligibility verification” before they can cast a ballot on Election Day.

Right now, when a Minnesotan pre-registers to vote, elections officials check a variety of databases to verify the person’s identity and the eligibility to vote of the would-be voter. Driver’s license records or Social Security Administration records are examined to ensure the person exists, hasn’t died and is an American citizen; a Department of Corrections database verifies the person isn’t an ineligible felon; the state courts database is checked to make sure the person isn’t under the guardianship of another.

Finally, a postcard is sent to the address provided by the pre-registering voter — a postcard that can’t be forwarded to a new address — to see if it’s bounced back by the U.S. Postal Service.

Election Day registration

So if the amendment passes and all voters are required to be subjected to similar checks on their identity and eligibility to vote, how could all that be done for people who register on Election Day?

It’s no small matter in Minnesota, where more than a half-million voters register at the polls for presidential elections and where the system has consistently made the state one of the national leaders in voter turn-out.

A variety of options are now open to those Election Day registrants to provide evidence they live in the precinct, including utility bills, pay stubs or the willingness of a registered voter to vouch for them. Voters abusing the system risk a felony prosecution, and their eligibility is checked after the election (although there’s no way to un-count the ballot they cast if they’re caught after the fact).

If lawmakers want to improve the system, they should do it by changing state law — not by amending the constitution, according to Penny, who believes the essence of Election Day registering is worth preserving.

“I’ve always been proud of Minnesota’s tradition of high voter participation,” Penny said. “And I really believe that we need to maintain that tradition.”

Cornish believes most people could still register on Election Day and not have their ballot put in the “provisional ballot” pile so long as they make sure they have a valid photo ID with a current address. Vouching would no longer be allowed, but the background checks involved in providing a Minnesotan with a photo ID would mirror many of the checks done for voters who pre-register, Cornish said.

But what about people who have a photo ID with an outdated address and are attempting to register on Election Day? Supporters say Minnesota has options for preserving Election Day registration even if the amendment passes, and the Legislature could decide next year which option to go with.

One alternative is to set up a computer at every precinct in the state that includes the relevant information from the databases already used to verify the existence, place of residence and eligibility of voters who pre-register.

That would cost $40 million or more to set up, plus ongoing maintenance costs, but it’s a small price to pay for boosting the integrity of elections, supporters say.

Even absent the computerized system at each precinct, people who don’t want to pre-register, have an outdated driver’s license and still want to vote could cast a provisional ballot — with their eligibility verified after the election, amendment supporters contend.

The latter option could be challenging for election judges if anywhere close to 500,000 Minnesotans opt for Election Day registration as they have in the past. And the results of elections could be delayed for days as those provisional ballots are left uncounted until the “substantially equivalent ... eligibility verification” is done.

Mail-in ballots

Then there’s the question verifying the identity of absentee voters. The amendment specifically requires that “all voters, including those not voting in person” have their identities checked in a “substantially equivalent” way.

So, if election judges at the polls are checking voters’ faces against the photo on the ID they are presenting, how are voters who mail their ballots going to be checked in a substantially equivalent way? Opponents say this problem could result in substantial changes for nearly 300,000 Minnesotans who use mail-in ballots in presidential election years. 

Supporters of the amendment say those voters could just use an ID number from their driver’s license or military ID card, although that wouldn’t seem to be equivalent to checking the absentee voter’s face against an ID photo.

“I guess it all depends on what your definition of ‘substantially equivalent’ is,” said Cornish, who believes the phrase provides enough wiggle room that lawmakers can preserve mail-in balloting largely as it exists now. That’s important for small townships that do all of their voting by mail-in ballot, he said.

 An alternative would be to require that all voters mailing in a ballot have a witness check their photo ID and sign the ballot envelope. Most absentee voters already must have a witness when they submit their ballot. Still, amendment supporters want to do away with the current system of allowing a registered voter to vouch for another voter at the polls, and the witness-system for mail-in voters would present essentially identical concerns.

Process questions

The amendment was put on the ballot, over the objections of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, on a party-line vote by the Republican-controlled Legislature. But Cornish is confident that lawmakers, whoever controls the House and Senate after Nov. 6, will reach agreement with Dayton on enabling legislation that avoids worst-case scenarios.

Cornish, who is unopposed for re-election to the House, has spent some of his campaign funds this fall on pro-amendment radio ads. He said some Republicans are keeping their heads down in relation to the amendment, saying they just wanted to give voters the right to decide the issue.

“I did it because I believe in it, and I think we need it,” the five-term Republican said. “I support it wholeheartedly.”

Penny, a Democrat while in Congress and now an independent, said he’s bothered by a process where voter rights are determined via a proposed constitutional amendment drafted and enacted solely by one party. And he said the complexity of the questions surrounding the amendment and its potential ramifications only reinforce that the language shouldn’t be enshrined in the state constitution.

“I’ve always said, ‘The more people learn about this amendment, the less they’re going to like it,’” Penny said.