A bill requiring voter identification cards, electronic rosters and a slew of other changes to election laws was heard in the House Government Operations and Election committee Thursday. A large number of groups testified that the bill would disenfranchise voters, especially students, the elderly and the disabled, while several testified that the bill is needed to prevent voter fraud. A presentation by Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer on the technological improvements her bill would make to the voting process was derailed when the hearing room technology failed.
“You need a photo ID to buy alcohol, cigarettes, drive a car to the polling place,” said Rep. Mike Benson, a Republican from Rochester. Benson is the author of one of two bill introduced in the Minnesota House that would require photo identification for voting. Benson said his bill is intended to prevent voter fraud.
“It is very easy to impersonate someone if you don’t have to show identification,” he said. “More and more you hear questions about the real integrity of the system.”
Former Secretary of State and current Republican Rep. Kiffmeyer offered another more expansive photo identification bill that would include an electronic system that scans IDs at the polling place.
She said it was simple technology “that will help take some of the burden off of election workers.”
But, a technological glitch prevented a short video that Kiffmeyer has planned to show. “It’s something with the House technology here. We will save the video for Tuesday, Madame Chair,” Kiffmeyer said. The committee will be continuing testimony on the bill on Tuesday.
Dan MacGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority, a group that pushed for the Kiffmeyer bill and was led by Kiffmeyer several years ago, said that Minnesota’s election system is “concerning.”
“I hope that other states do not adopt our system,” he said.
He decried the state’s same-day registration because he says it requires less information than what’s needed to register prior to election day.
“It’s an injustice to grant preferential treatment and trust to some voters just because they decide to register at the last minute,” he said.
Dale Erickson of Blaine, who was a recount observer for the campaign of Sen. Norm Coleman, said, “It’s been in the last 10 or 15 years that the integrity of the system has been called into question.”
He said the bill would prevent non-citizens from voting. “Previous speakers have been talking about residency as if it were the same thing as citizenship. We have to know if you are eligible to vote because you are a citizen.”
Laura Norlander, an election judge who has Republican ties, said, “This was my first time to be an election judge in 2010. It was an eye opener to receive the training and realize how many opportunities for voter fraud in our system.”
But that voter fraud doesn’t seem to have materialized. Last fall, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association called allegations of voter fraud in Minnesota “frivolous” and that only 26 people had been convicted of voting as a felon in the last two years.
Teresa Nelson, legal counsel for the ACLU of Minnesota told the committee that two close elections, in 2008 and 2010, “have not led to a single conviction for voter impersonation fraud – the only type of voter fraud that photo ID requirements could possibly address.”
“Moreover,” she added, “there were only 26 felon voting convictions out of 2.9 million voters. Contrast that miniscule number with the thousands of voters who may be disenfranchised because of a new photo ID requirement.”
She said the bill would appear to violate the Constitution.
“Supporters of Jim Crow justified their voter suppresion laws as equal treatment of all voters,” she told the committee. “Vote no on this voter suppression bill.”
Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, said that the bill would prevent people from voting.
“This does not make sense when we could have improved our system by implementing the registration modernization bill that Gov. Pawlenty vetoed last year,” he said.
He pointed out that Utah, a very Republican state, recently enacted a similar system to the one vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and did it with support of both Democrats and Republicans. Minnesota should follow the lead of Utah’s system, Dean said, instead of “wasting time playing partisan politics.”
Dean also said the bill would cost the state too much money at a time of a massive budget deficit.
The cost issue is one that other states are grappling with as Republicans move to implement the same system outside Minnesota as well. The Institute for Southern Studies released a report this week on a similar initiative in North Carolina and found that the state simply couldn’t afford it. The costs associated with a voter ID program would include a massive publicity campaign to ensure all citizens know about the new law, training programs for elected officials and the cost to the state to create voter ID cards for residents who cannot afford to pay for them.
All told, North Carolina would pay out $18 to $25 million over the next three years if the bill passed. The institute found costs associated with a similar plan in Missouri to be close to $20 million. “Lawmakers routinely failed to include at least one basic expense needed to implement a voter ID law in their cost estimates, such as voter education,” ISS reported.
Advocates for students, battered women, the elderly and the disabled told the committee that the bill would have significant impacts on those populations as well.
Mary Lou Hill, a 94-year old member of the League of Women Voters, was concerned about the effect of the bill on seniors. She said she was born four years before the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote.
“I believe the right to vote is among our most important rights,” she said. “Whatever the authors’ intentions, the effect of the bills would be to take the vote away from United States citizens.”
She said the bill’s requirement that all voters obtain a photo ID from the Department of Public Safety would be an obstacle to older voters.
“It is easy for one of you to run down to the government center and to update your drivers license. Senior citizens may have a number of problems with this simple activity. They might not drive and might not have anyone to take them.”
“There’s no question these bills will disenfranchise thousands of senior citizens.”
Dierdre Keyes, of the Battered Women’s Legal Advocacy Project, said the bill, which would do away with Minnesota’s vouching system, would have a profound impact on women who have been victims of domestic violence.
“Women who stay at our shelters are required to make no contact with their former residence and it is not likely that they will want to be anywhere near their old polling place for fear of being seen,” she said. “These women are able to vote because of the vouching system. The staff of the shelter goes with the women to the shelter’s precinct and vouches for them as a resident of the shelter.”
She added, “They are interested in voting, yet on election day they were residents of the battered women’s shelter with ID’s stating the address of the of the residence they just fled. With the current vouching system in place we are able to assist them to vote and be safe.”
If the bill becomes law, “these women would choose safety over voting and their voice would not be heard at the polling place,” she said.
Several students recounted their experiences voting and how the law change might affect them.
Matt Butler, co-chair of the Macalester College chapter of MPIRG, said the bill would put a “burden on college students’ ability to vote,” and Peter Randall, a University of Minnesota student and also a member of MPIRG, said that he’s changed his residency five times in the last three years.
“There’s no need for more barriers to Minnesota’s nation leading youth vote turnout,” Randall said.
St. Paul City Councilmember Melvin Carter represented the City Council and Mayor Chris Coleman at the hearing and recounted how he was turned away from the polls in Florida during the 2000 election.
“I’m here today because I am confused by these efforts. We heard testimony today that you need a photo ID to buy alcohol or take the ACT or write a check at CVS as though those things are anywhere in comparison to the fundamental right to vote,” he said. “We should always agree that every eligible American should be welcomed at the polls.”
Justin Page, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, said the bill would create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities.
“An individual is entitled to have personal assistance by someone of his or her own choosing,” he said, regarding a provision in the bill that bans health care workers from assisting disabled voters. “That is what federal law requires.”
He said he has been assured by the bill’s authors that the language is going to be changed.
The bill would also prohibit people under guardianship from voting, he said. “It’s hard for me to believe that you can talk about the civic duty to vote while at the same time disenfranchising a whole group of people.”
An extension of the hearing will be held on Tuesday.