After an intensely partisan year-long debate, the Minnesota Legislature has decided to turn the future of the state’s election system over to the public, which will vote in November on a constitutional amendment that would require voters to show a government-issued photo ID, establish a new “provisional” balloting system, and eliminate election day “vouching” in our state.
This is an extremely important decision, one deserving of a thoughtful and fair public discussion over both the costs and benefits of these new voting requirements. Unfortunately, the debate over this issue at the Capitol amounted to nothing more than a political food fight. Opponents of the voter ID proposal accused supporters of disenfranchising seniors, college students, minorities and the poor. Proponents of the measure suggested that their opponents were simply trying to protect an election system fraught with fraud and open to manipulation. This type of hyper-partisan rhetoric did little to help inform public opinion and, instead, reduced a very serious issue into well-worn talking points.
That’s why I believe it is time for local government leaders to substantively contribute to this conversation. Not by picking sides and joining in the partisan battle, but by helping voters understand the complexities of the issue.
Let me start by laying a foundation of fact that is instrumental to making any judgment about the issue:
· Minnesota’s local governments do an excellent job of administering fair and open elections, as evidenced by the lack of any significant voter irregularity in our state.
· Minnesota currently has the highest voter turnout rate in the country, a fact in which Minnesotans take great pride.
· Virtually all recorded voter irregularity in Minnesota is due to felons voting, and felons often have proper identification. Both proponents and opponents of voter ID agree that it would not address this issue in any way.
Despite our state’s sterling reputation for fair elections, it’s clear that a good number of Minnesotans are uncomfortable with the state’s unique Election Day rules. Unregistered voters in our state can arrive at the polls and cast a live ballot without any proof of residency, beyond having a registered voter “vouch” for their eligibility. While there is no proof of significant abuse within this system, many argue the state should have stricter safeguards in place to catch fraudulent voters before their ballots are counted.
While the voter ID proposal would provide greater comfort to those concerned about the current integrity of our election system, there is no denying that it will come with significant costs.
Some of these costs are intangible: Voter ID would make the act of voting more difficult for those currently without a government-issued ID, as well as those who may lose their ID or have it stolen in the days leading up to election day. For a state that prides itself on voter turnout and civic participation, this simply cannot be ignored.
But there is a much more tangible cost to voter ID. If approved in November, this constitutional amendment would require the state to spend millions of dollars to provide free IDs to thousands of Minnesotans and to educate citizens on the state’s new voting requirements.
In addition, local governments would need to implement provisional balloting, a process that allows voters who arrive at the polls without an ID to cast a ballot that would only be counted if they subsequently provided the necessary identification. This process would require local governments to print special ballots, purchase new equipment, hire and train additional election judges, and pay for storage and security of provisional ballots. Study after study has shown that implementing a provisional balloting process will cost local governments – and, in turn, property taxpayers – millions of dollars every election season.
Ultimately, it will be up to Minnesota voters to decide whether the benefits of voter ID are worth these additional costs. Some individuals will always believe that removing every last voting irregularity from our state’s system should be a top priority, regardless of the cost. Others will look at Minnesota’s history of running fair and clean elections, and decide that the possible benefits of voter ID just aren’t worth the cost during these times of deficits and financial uncertainty.
But this decision is far too important to leave to partisan bickering and finger-pointing. Changing the way we choose our elected officials carries far-reaching consequences, and such changes will be nearly impossible to undo once they are enshrined in the state’s constitution. It is critical that we have an open and honest discussion about this issue to ensure that voters have properly weighed the true costs and benefits of voter ID before they cast their ballot in November.