I. In Focus This Week
Ballot language latest arena for state voter ID disputes
The fight over photo ID requirements for voters is once again finding its way into courts – but this time the issue isn’t about the merits of ID but rather about ballot language putting the question to voters.
In Minnesota, voter ID is supposed to be on the November 2012 ballot. After DFL Governor Mark Dayton vetoed ID legislation in 2011, GOP majorities in the Legislature agreed earlier this year to put the question to voters – action that does not require the Governor’s approval. Given that public opinion polls suggest that voters favor ID, supporters are hopeful that voters can provide the energy to push ID past the opposition of the Governor and DFL legislators.
As it has in virtually every state, the dispute has sharply – and fiercely – divided the state’s political establishment. Groups across the spectrum have lined up to support and oppose the amendment.
There is a chance, however, that voters may not get the chance to have their say. The Minnesota Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments about whether or not the ballot language describing the amendment is sufficient. As the language currently stands, voters will be asked if the state constitution should be amended "to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters".
Opponents believe that the impact of voter ID is much broader. As Rachel Stassen-Berger of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote recently,
[Voter ID] could, they say, end the state's same-day registration, limit absentee voting and require the state to adopt provisional voting. It could also cost the state $40 million to provide free, state-issued identification to voters in need and millions each year after that, they say. Voters will be presented with none of those details on their Election Day ballots. In other states, groups have argued that the true intent of photo ID requirements is voter suppression among minorities, the elderly and college students.
ID supporters dispute these contentions, saying that their goal is simply to ensure the integrity of the state’s electoral process and noting that the ballot language accurately captures the essence of the proposal, which is to require photo ID at the polls.
The Minnesota dispute is reminiscent of the recent experience in Missouri, where in late May a county judge blocked a photo ID amendment because the ballot summary was “insufficient and unfair.” Specifically, the judge found that the summary’s reference to a “Voter Protection Act” was improper given that such language was not included in the original legislation establishing the amendment. In addition, the judge found that language in the summary suggesting that the state could establish a time period for early voting was misleading since the underlying amendment would actually limit the time for such voting.
Minnesota and Missouri are also similar in that the Secretaries of State in both states are Democrats who firmly oppose voter ID. Missouri Secretary Robin Carnahan (who is not seeking re-election) praised the ruling in her state as “a victory for voters’ rights … The Missouri Constitution protects the fundamental right of eligible voters to have their voices heard. It defies common sense to weaken those rights.”
Minnesota’s Secretary Mark Ritchie has also come under criticism from ID supporters in Minnesota, who believe that his vocal public opposition to ID conflicts with his duty to manage the state’s elections in a nonpartisan manner. That opposition is less of an issue in the ballot language dispute, where the state Attorney General’s office will represent the state before the high court. Supporters of ID like Minnesota Majority have until July 2 to intervene – which they’re likely to do to ensure that their views on the issue are heard.
The hearing has been scheduled for July 17. As part of the court’s order, the State has been asked to give the court a deadline for a decision “in order to modify the ballot, if necessary” before Election Day in November.
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