Last year, Republicans introduced legislation in thirty-four states to mandate government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot. Nine GOP states have passed voter ID laws since the 2010 election, including Pennsylvania earlier last month. Minnesota, another important battleground state, could be next.
Last year, Minnesota Democratic Governor Mark Dayton vetoed a bill from the GOP legislature that would have given the state the strictest voter ID law in the nation, prohibiting passports, military IDs and student IDs as valid documentation. Now the legislature is bypassing the governor by approving a constitutional amendment for voter ID that will go on the November ballot. The House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the legislation; once agreed upon, the measure will go on the 2012 ballot. If approved by voters, the 2013 legislature will implement the particulars of the law.
Voter ID laws are the latest attempt by conservative groups and corporate interests to shape a GOP-friendly electorate and consolidate the power of the 1 percent within the political system. According to a 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 11 percent of US citizens lack government-issued ID, including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans. “While the photo ID constitutional amendment would impede the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans—including active duty service members and other absentee voters—it will disproportionately impact the elderly, students, foreclosure victims, the working poor and minorities, the very citizens who most need to use the democratic process to counter the influence of the superwealthy and the political entities they finance,” says a report from the grassroots progressive group TakeAction Minnesota.
According to an analysis by the Minnesota secretary of state’s office, 215,000 Minnesota voters—7 percent of the state’s electorate—do not have a driver’s license or ID card with a current address on it. The voter ID law could also end the state’s popular system of Election Day voter registration, which 18.5 percent of voters used in 2008. Minnesota has the highest voter turnout in the US and is often held up as a model for the rest of the nation.
Voter ID laws have been a top priority of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafted a model voter ID bill for state legislators in 2009. ALEC members sponsored voter ID legislation in five states that passed such laws in 2011. ALEC’s state chairman in Minnesota, Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, also happens to be the lead sponsor of Minnesota’s voter ID legislation in the state house. Fifteen ALEC members of the legislature have co-sponsored the bill. Reported the AP: “ALEC provided a copy of its voter ID model bill to The Associated Press. Kiffmeyer's 2011 bill is not identical, though there are several similar sections about ID requirements, counting provisional ballots and issuing a free ID to those over 18 who don't have a valid driver's license.”
Rep. Kiffmeyer, the lead sponsor on the vetoed [voter ID] bill, is Minnesota’s former Secretary of State. During that tenure, she attempted a number of actions that might have disenfranchised voters had courts not blocked them. In 2004, Kiffmeyer attempted a rule that would have required voters to have a valid ID that “exactly matched” the information on her registered voter rolls. Two years later, she ruled on Election Day that college students could not use utility bills to prove their residence when voting. Same year, she tried to ban special identification cards used by Native Americans unless the voter could prove they were residents of their tribe’s reservation. In every case, courts overturned Rep. Kiffmeyer’s maneuvers.
After losing her re-election campaign for secretary of state in 2006, Kiffmeyer formed a conservative group called Minnesota Majority, which has hyped unsubstantiated fears of “voter fraud” in order to promote the voter ID law. “Minnesota Leads the Nation in Voter Fraud Convictions,” claimed a report last year. The group alleged that 113 felons were convicted for unlawfully voting in 2008 election, which, even if true, would be the equivalent of .004 percent of the 2.9 million Minnesotans who voted. Still, Minnesota Public Radio labeled that claim “inconclusive.” Noted TakeAction: “No one has ever been convicted of voter impersonation in Minnesota.” Minnesota Majority also created a racially incendiary picture on its website showing a black man in prison stripes and a Latino in a sombrero and mariachi clothes lining up to vote.
Even if the facts are not on their side, Kiffmeyer and her fellow Republicans in the legislature have powerful backers in the state’s business community. According to TakeAction, “executives from Minnesota’s three largest banks—Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and TCF—led and funded a series of inter-related campaign entities that were instrumental in the Republican takeover of the Legislature that put members of ALEC in the House leadership and placed an attack on the voting rights of Minnesotans at the top of the 2012 legislative agenda.” These networks of banker-funded groups spent almost $500,000 to elect 25 new Republican legislators in 2008 and 2010 and more than $375,000 for 21 legislators pushing the voter ID amendments.
Once the constitutional amendment reaches the ballot, these groups are likely to spend lavishly on its behalf. A poll last year of 12,000 Minnesotans at the state fair showed 50 supporting the voter ID law, with 46 percent opposed and 2 percent undecided. “The more Minnesotans know the cost, burden and barriers of voter ID, the less they support it,” says Liz Loeb, TakeAction’s democracy campaign manager.
Should the constitutional amendment pass in November, it will likely face significant legal challenges. Minnesota, like Wisconsin, has an article protecting the right to vote in its state constitution. A Wisconsin circuit court judge recently found his state’s voter ID law unconstitutional. “These disenfranchised citizens would certainly include some of our friends, neighbors and relatives,” wrote Judge Richard Niess.
Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.