Doug Belden, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. –
A dozen years ago, proving who you were at the polls wasn’t a big issue.
But then came the presidential election of 2000, which spotlighted mechanical and other flaws in Florida’s vote-counting system and ended with the U.S. Supreme Court intervening to declare a winner.
That high-stakes drama touched off a re-examination of election processes and led several states over the next decade to tighten ID requirements to reduce the possibility of fraud.
By 2011, voter ID was “the hottest topic of legislation in the field of elections,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Minnesota, voters in November will be deciding whether to move from having no voter ID requirement to adopting one of the strictest in the nation.
In 2001, only 14 states even asked for ID — and it was a request, not a requirement.
Since 2001, nearly 1,000 voter ID bills have been introduced in a total of 46 states. Thirty-three states have passed voter ID laws, and at least 30 will be in place for November’s election.
Proponents argue that photo ID is a relatively painless way to shore up election integrity. Opponents say it’s unnecessary, costly and aimed at disenfranchising the elderly, college students, the disabled and others who tend to support Democrats.
The worst fears of activists on both sides appear to be overblown, according to an April 2012 report from the conference of state legislatures.
“So far, little evidence exists that fraud by
impersonation at the polls is a common problem. Likewise, little evidence exists that large numbers of people have been barred from voting in states with strict voter ID laws,” the report found.
In almost all cases — including Minnesota — it’s Republican legislators pushing voter ID and Democrats opposing it.
Partly that’s because both parties recognize that since 2000, “a lot of elections are being decided on the margins,” said Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine and author of “The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown.”
Both are seeking an advantage in close elections — Republicans by trying to contract the electorate with measures such as voter ID and Democrats trying to expand it with election-day registration, Hasen said.
Voter ID also is a useful issue to fire up party activists on either side, he said.
For Republicans, “it helps to excite the base, make a claim that Democrats are trying to steal the election. (It’s) good for fundraising,” Hasen said. “And on the flip side, Democrats oppose these voter ID laws not necessarily because they’re going to disenfranchise many people, but also because it’s a good wedge issue — claim voter suppression, use it for fundraising.”
After the 2000 election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 aimed at upgrading voter access and voting systems. That law required first-time voters registering by mail to present ID and authorized the casting of provisional ballots by challenged voters.
States quickly went beyond the Help America Vote Act. Since 2003, two dozen have enacted voter ID laws with varying requirements and degrees of stringency.
Starting in 2005, Indiana and Georgia pioneered “strict photo ID.”
Under that system — which is what’s proposed for Minnesota — a voter without a valid photo ID casts a provisional ballot and must return within a certain amount of time with proper ID to have his or her vote counted.
Indiana’s law was upheld in 2008 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“That kind of gave a green-light impetus to other states,” said Joe Peschek, chairman of the political science department at Hamline University in St. Paul.
Following Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections, voter ID laws “exploded” across the country in 2011, according to the conference of state legislatures. Laws were introduced in 34 states; eight were enacted. Left-leaning groups point to the influence of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council in getting those measures enacted.
Minnesota was part of the trend. Republican majorities in the House and Senate passed a bill in 2011 requiring voters to show photo ID. It was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.
But the GOP Legislature brought the issue back, this time as a proposed amendment to the state constitution that voters will act on in November.
Yet many of the details of how photo ID would be implemented would be left up to the 2013 Legislature, which would have to pass a bill that Dayton could sign.
Hasen predicts lots of legal fights ahead for Minnesota. Republicans and Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie already have gone to court over the proposal, and the amendment’s general wording leaves lots of room for arguing about the details.
“I expect that if the voter ID law passes, that there’s going to be additional follow-on litigation and more battles to come over precisely what’s going to be done and how it’s going to be implemented,” Hasen said. “It’s going to be the beginning, rather than the end of the battle.”
COMPARING THE LAWS
The only other state that has enacted voter ID as an amendment to its constitution is Mississippi, where voters passed a strict photo ID measure in 2011.
But that measure has yet to take effect because it requires legislation to be implemented and also federal pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act.
As a way to prevent discriminatory electoral practices, the 1965 act requires certain states to submit proposed new practices to federal legal review before they can be implemented.
Within the last year, Texas and South Carolina both were denied pre-clearance to implement strict photo ID requirements. Minnesota is not subject to the preclearance requirement.
Other states with the strictest voter ID laws — Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — passed them through their legislatures. (Pennsylvania’s law is in limbo after the state’s Supreme Court on Tuesday, Sept. 18, vacated a lower court decision upholding the law and directed the lower court to make a new ruling by Oct. 2.)
Minnesota would join those states in the strictest group if the amendment passes, but there are differences in the laws, including some exemptions.
How they compare:
— All in-person voters must present valid government-issued photo ID.
— The state must issue free photo ID to eligible voters who don’t have it.
— Voters unable to show photo ID cast provisional ballots, to be counted if proper ID is shown later.
— All voters, including those not voting in person, must be subject to “substantially equivalent identity and eligibility verification” before their ballot can be cast or counted.
Georgia: Even expired driver’s licenses are accepted; provisional voters get three days to come back with proper ID.
Indiana: Nursing home residents who vote in their buildings are exempt from ID requirement; provisional voters come back by Monday after election and either show ID or sign an affidavit saying they can’t because they’re indigent or have a religious objection.
Kansas: The state has ID exemptions for the physically disabled, military service members and family on active duty, and those with religious objections; ID from accredited Kansas colleges is accepted; provisional voters must provide ID before the county board of canvassers meets;
Pennsylvania (on hold pending court ruling): ID from accredited Pennsylvania colleges and care facilities is accepted; provisional voters have six days to return with ID, unless they can’t afford one.
Tennessee: Valid photo ID from any state is accepted; provisional voters have until the end of the second business day after an election to provide ID.
Doug Belden can be reached at 651-228-5136. Follow him at twitter.com/dbeldenpipress.
HOW WE VOTE
In considering what kind of voter ID system to adopt, states face two key decisions: 1) whether to ask for photo ID, and 2) whether to allow those lacking required ID to cast a regular ballot if they fulfill other conditions or whether to require them to cast a provisional ballot and return later with proper ID. Here is how the states break down:
STRICT PHOTO ID
If Minnesota’s amendment is approved, it will join Georgia, Indiana, Kansas and Tennessee as “strict photo ID” states. An additional five states — Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are in the process of becoming strict photo ID states but have not yet.
Minnesota’s proposal lacks details about what counts as valid ID, how long provisional ballot voters will have to establish their identity and other issues. Those would need to be resolved by the Legislature.
PHOTO ID, NOT STRICT
Some states request voters show photo ID at the polls but will allow those without ID to cast a regular ballot if they fulfill other conditions, such as providing a signed affidavit of identity.
Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire and South Dakota use this method. Alabama has such a law as well, but it has yet to take effect.
NONPHOTO ID, STRICT
In Arizona, Ohio and Virginia, voters are not required to present a photo ID. But they need to show some form of identification — such as a current utility bill — or submit a provisional ballot and bring ID later.
NONPHOTO ID, NOT STRICT
Thirteen states accept ID that doesn’t include a photo and will allow voters without ID to cast ballots if other conditions are fulfilled. They are: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington.
NO VOTER ID LAWS
In addition to Minnesota, these are: California, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming. (Mississippi and Wisconsin have strict photo ID requirements in process but not yet in effect.)