Black votes on the line with Voter ID


A year after the 2008 presidential election, calls for new voter identification laws were heard in many states, including Minnesota. Led by a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) composed mostly of Republicans, proponents claim that such a law is needed because there is “rampant voter fraud.”

ALEC’s public safety and elections task force drafted the Voter ID Act in the summer of 2009, which would require “proof of identity” to vote. Those without a valid photo ID must fill out a provisional ballot that is only counted if the voter produces an ID by the Monday following the election. It also suggests that ID cards be made available free of charge to eligible voters without a valid driver’s license.

ALEC is a Republican-favored organization that is promoting “its right-wing agenda” in all 50 states, says Color of, a national activist group that has launched a national campaign calling for corporations and others to stop financially supporting the organization. The MSR tried contacting ALEC’s Washington offices for comment, but no one answered the phone and there was not an answering system available to leave messages.

Since 2009, 33 states have introduced some form of photo ID bill, and 14 states have passed laws that now require voters to present a federal- or state-issued photo ID with an expiration date at the polls. Opponents, who include most Democrats as well as local and nationally based organizations that advocate for Blacks and other people of color, say the legislation is “a thinly veiled attempt to depress [voter] turnout.”

“There have been no problems [of voter fraud in Minnesota],” says State Representative Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-Minneapolis), who told the MSR last week that there are more pressing issues that need addressing.

“Public policy and legislation should be about solving a problem or a challenge,” Champion says. The current same-day voter registration “encourages people to come out and vote. If a person doesn’t have something [to verify their address], their neighbor can vouch for them,” says the lawmaker.

State Representative Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) says, “We have a system that is working and very inclusive, and also represents that voting is a right. We have a group here trying to take that right [and] make it a privilege.”

The Republican-majority Minnesota Legislature did pass a photo ID bill last year, but it was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton. An attempt is now underway in this year’s session to introduce a bill that would amend the state constitution to require all Minnesotans to show either a driver’s license or a state-issued photo ID at the polls.

If successful, this legislation would end same-day voter registration and absentee voting.

This amendment is not publicly driven but politically driven, says State Senator Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis). “All you need is a simple majority in the Senate and the House to put it on the ballot,” he explains, adding that going this route “sets up a dangerous precedent like they have in other states. It really mucks up the ballot.”

U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) joined several Minnesotans at the State Capitol on February 6 to speak out against the proposed amendment. He cited statistics from the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office showing that over 700,000 Minnesotans — including seniors, college students, people with disabilities, people of color, and new Americans — would be affected by a new photo ID amendment.

Ellison later told the MSR that because statewide elections in both 2008 and 2010 were decided by, respectively, a few hundred and a few thousand votes, “Photo ID could unfairly tip the scales in future elections.”

Local religious leaders also voiced their opposition during a February 7 rally at the State Capitol. They delivered to House and Senate leadership and co-sponsors of the bill a letter signed by hundreds of interfaith clergy and laity throughout the state.

“The proposed Voter ID referendum in Minnesota seeks to reduce the number of people who participate in our democracy,” the letter said. “[It] would reduce the number of people of color who could vote [and] the number of poor people who could vote. It is for these reasons that we urge our legislative leaders to not put the Voter ID amendment on the 2012 ballot.”

Champion calls this latest attempt for new Voter ID rules “a real end game…to make it difficult for seniors, people of color, the homeless, and those who are reflected in our diverse community. It is geared toward preventing them from having the opportunity to vote.”

He strongly suggests that the public must be forewarned on what’s really behind Voter ID. “We have to do all that we can in order to ensure that people clearly understand what this is all about.

“You see a number of people trying to frame the discussion differently by simply saying, ‘Oh, don’t you need an ID to cash your check? Don’t you use an ID for other things?’ People readily will say, ‘Yes.’ Then [the bill supporters] will say, ‘Why can’t you use an ID to go vote?’ This is a different context and different situation and different intent.”

“What we’re really up against is the prevailing idea that everybody has an ID,” notes Ellison. “Everybody doesn’t have an ID… The people who don’t have an ID are just as American as any one of us, and they should be allowed to vote.”

Opponents of the amendment “must frame the discussion differently by looking at the historical context,” says Champion.

“Photo ID would bring America back to the days of poll taxes that prevented African Americans from voting for decades,” says Ellison.

Moran adds, “It is nothing more than a 21st Century Jim Crow movement.”

“This particular bill places an additional burden upon people and discourages them from voting,” says St. Thomas Law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds. With the state budgetary problems, “I’m also curious about the financial implications because of the Voter ID bill,” she continues. “I’m not sure how much it would actually cost to implement this new requirement. How much will it cost the State of Minnesota?”

The GOP-backed Voter ID bill is a “distraction,” believes Jeremiah Ellis, a special initiatives coordinator at the St. Paul YWCA. “There are some leaders here in the State Capitol that want to distract us, deter us from coming out and supporting who we want to support.”

“I’m hoping that there is enough opposition to the bill to prevent it from passing,” says Levy-Pounds. Citizens should contact state legislators and “let them know how they feel about the bill,” she says. They should “call and send emails to their legislative representatives. I think educating people is important, but also letting their voices be heard by contacting the stakeholders who are making the decisions.”

“Our community has not done enough” in showing opposition to the proposed amendment, Hayden believes. “We need to galvanize the leadership in the organizations in our community to have a strong statement against it. That includes the NAACP, the Urban League, the churches… This should be an issue that every single African American organization should be at the forefront of this fight.”

“We have a lot of work to do,” concludes Moran.

Information from other sources such as Color of and Main Street Insider was used in this report.