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At Issue: No ID required

Published (2/13/2009)
By Nick Busse
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As Rep. Tom Emmer, left, the bill’s sponsor watches, Hamline University Law Professor David Schultz, right, testifies before the House State and Local Government Operations Reform, Technology and Elections Committee Feb. 12 against a bill that would require voters to provide picture identification before receiving a ballot. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Delano) didn’t waste time getting into the specifics of his voter ID bill for members of the House State and Local Government Operations Reform, Technology and Elections Committee on Feb. 12. Instead, he made a very simple pitch: it’s about integrity.

Emmer argued that HF57, which would require all Minnesota voters to present a valid photo ID at their polling place on Election Day, would not only prevent voter fraud, but assure voters that the true outcome of any election is beyond doubt.

“If we’re truly proud of our elections … it’s imperative that we do something as simple as require a voter ID,” Emmer said.

Opponents of the bill, like Hamline University law professor David Schultz, disagreed. They argued that a photo ID requirement would make it more difficult for people to vote and thereby suppress turnout on Election Day. Moreover, Schultz and others said the problem that the bill seeks to prevent — voter fraud — is statistically insignificant to the point of being nonexistent.

They were familiar arguments on what has become an almost perennial issue. And the end result was also familiar: the bill was defeated on an 11-8 vote by committee members. With the exception of Rep. Phil Sterner (DFL-Rosemount), all DFLers voted against the bill and all Republicans for it.

It must have seemed like déjà vu to Emmer, who said he’s baffled why voter ID has become such a partisan issue.

“We all want to maintain the integrity of our elections and make sure that people have the confidence in the legitimacy of the outcome — that if their candidate doesn’t win, they know it was a fair and honest election,” Emmer said.

Under the provisions of his bill, voters who don’t already have a valid ID, such as a driver’s license, would be able to obtain a special voter ID card free of charge from their local county election officials. Additionally voters who are unable to present a valid photo ID at their polling place on Election Day could cast a provisional ballot that would later be counted if the voter could prove their identity.

Though the provisions are intended to assuage concerns about making it harder for people to vote, opponents argue Emmer’s bill will do exactly that.

Keesha Gaskins, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, said the bill adds another layer of complication to the voting process — one that will place an added burden on senior citizens, disabled persons and other demographics that already find voting a difficult endeavor.

“The problems we have seen in Minnesota’s current election system are frequently a result of unnecessarily complicated systems that allow multiple opportunities for error. This bill adds another layer of responsibility and complication,” Gaskins said.

Research on this subject has yielded mixed results. A study by Rutgers University and another by the California and Massachusetts institutes of technology indicated that voter ID laws do indeed discourage people from voting, especially among lower-income and lower-education demographics.

A University of Missouri study on a voter ID law in Indiana, however, found “no consistent or statistically significant evidence” that the law had a negative impact on voter turnout. In fact, it found that voter turnout had actually increased in Democratic-leaning areas following its enactment — though Schultz and others have accused the report of using a flawed methodology.

There are other, more practical objections to the bill. Gaskins said providing counties with the staff and equipment to produce voter ID cards would have an unknown and potentially huge cost to the state. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said that other states’ experiences with the provisional balloting provided for in Emmer’s bill “is a nightmare that results in only one-third of those votes being counted.”

Nevertheless, Emmer said requiring voter ID is a popular idea whose time has come. He points to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that found Indiana’s photo ID law to be constitutional as evidence that many of the objections to his bill are invalid. As to the cost concern, he said it would be money well-spent.

“How much is too much to ensure the integrity of our electoral process?” he asked.

He may, however, have to ask the question again next year.

A companion to Emmer’s bill, SF146, sponsored by Sen. Amy Koch (R-Buffalo), awaits action by the Senate State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee.

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