By James L. Stroud, Jr.
A Republican proposal that would require that all Minnesota voters present a valid photo ID to cast their votes has already stirred up many media stories and much debate and controversy — and promises to continue doing so in the months ahead. Although the latest power move was made by Governor Mark Dayton, who on April 9 vetoed the voter-identification bill that the Republican-controlled legislature sent him, his veto will not prevent the proposed constitutional amendment from appearing on the Minnesota state ballot on November 6 this year.
If a majority of Minnesotans decide to vote for it, everyone in the state would be required to show a current photo ID to vote. The governor used his veto message to urge Minnesotans to vote against the measure in November, calling it “unwise and unnecessary.”
On April 17, 6-8 pm, a panel discussion on “Voter ID: The Civil Rights Implications” was held at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. The discussion was identified as the first of a series to be held on the topic. Following a one-hour reception that included a resource fair, voter registration, and a voter survey, the assembly of about 100 heard from moderator Jim Hilbert and the six panelists.
Hilbert, an opponent of the voter ID bill, is a longtime civil rights attorney and currently the executive director/founder of the Center for Negotiation & Justice at William Mitchell. Hilbert said that once he decided to coordinate a series on the topic, the first item on his checklist was to assemble a diverse group of panelists with common threads and common ground with the people opposed to the voter ID bill.
“The NAACP said they wanted to do voter ID stuff,” Hilbert said. “They wanted to get education going and register voters. So I said, ‘Great! Let’s get community partners and legal partners like the ACLU and include the League of Women Voters for some coalition building.’”
The panelists were Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul NAACP; Teresa Nelson, legal counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); Rena Moran, state representative for Dist. 65A; Bobby Joe Champion, state representative for Dist. 58B; Joe Mansky, Ramsey County elections manager; and Sigrid Johnson. All panelists spoke in opposition to the voter ID amendment.
Minnesota Republicans claim that the voter ID measure is needed to prevent voter fraud. But according to panelists Mansky, who has been a Ramsey County election manager since 2002, and Champion, a second term legislator and practicing attorney, Minnesota has never had any history of voter fraud. Champion did point out that the only thing close was a few felons who were not allowed to vote because they were still on probation.
Martin began by reminding the audience that the National NAACP and the St. Paul branch have always been on the forefront for justice. “We are at a crossroads again, as a state and a society,” he said.
“Minnesota, in its humble beginnings as a territory, did pass a constitution back in 1857. It set the tone for what the state would be about by saying religious freedoms would be honored here [and] by saying slavery would not be honored here. So we did start off on the right track.
“However,” Martin continued, “there were two constitutions that were written. One was Republican and one was Democrat. Republicans also wanted the right to vote to be included, to affect voting rights of Black men. That was a deal-breaker for the Democrats at the time,” said Martin.
According to Martin, several years later a compromise was reached. Martin believes that since the record voter turnout in 2008, there has been an all-out Republican effort to prevent that record turnout from happening again.
The ACLU’s Nelson said that everyone knows at least one person who will be affected by this amendment if it is adopted. It could be someone in their eighties who stopped driving, someone that loses their license on election day, or a woman who is Muslim and is uncomfortable with taking photos of her full face.
Nelson cited federal laws that could work in favor of those opposed to Minnesota’s voter ID amendment, specifically the “Voter Suppression Law” as described by Champion or the “21st Century Jim Crow Law” as described by Moran.
Other federal laws working in favor of those in opposition are the Federal Voting Rights Act (section II) and the 14th and 24th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The 24th Amendment prohibits poll taxes. It prohibits states from conditioning the right to vote in federal elections on the payment of a tax or fee or for imposing on federal voters a material condition on voting that would not apply if they paid such tax or fee.
Champion shared important information to felons interested in voting, pointing out that if felons have served their time and their probation is over, they are legally allowed to vote in Minnesota according to MN statute 609.165. He raised several questions about the provisional voting option and asked the crowd, “What kind of sticker do you get after voting with a provisional ballot?” Someone yelled out, “I Tried to Vote,” and the crowd laughed.
The MSR spoke further with panelist Mansky, who said he has been directly involved in state elections for 28 years. Although as Ramsey County elections manager he cannot take sides on the issue, he said, “I do think it’s important that people understand what the facts are, that they understand the impact of the proposal being made.
“It’s troubling that we’re basically taking a step back in time,” Mansky said. “With absentee voting, we would allow people to self-certify. That will no longer be possible if this amendment is adopted.” Mansky added that if the amendment is adopted, it would mean major changes to our election system that could cost a lot of money.
The MSR also spoke with moderator Hilbert, asking what he sees coming next for the group. “The coalition has got to keep going,” he said. “The messages continue to be clarified. I think that as long as we can continue to expand the coalition and continue to clarify the messages, we’ll make some progress.”
Asked if, were the amendment adopted, the coalition partners would ramp up efforts to encourage Minnesota voters to get proper state identification, Hilbert said, “First you would have to equip people so they can do what they can to vote. That’s a must, but there is still a legal challenge. I see this as more than just going to court. It’s about mobilizing people. It’s about communicating the movement behind the message.”
The following organizations have been identified as collaboration partners and/or sponsors of the panel series: the St. Paul NAACP, the Black Law Student Association, the office of Multicultural Affairs at William Mitchell College, the ACLU, the American Constitution Society, William Mitchell DFL and the Center for Negotiation & Justice.
The MSR later spoke with Andy Cilek, president and founder of the Minnesota Voters Alliance, which has filed a lawsuit against Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Richie, Attorney General Lori Swanson, and others claiming that current Minnesota election laws are unconstitutional with respect to certifying voter eligibility. Cilek clarified that while he and his group are opposed to the amendment, they want the voter ID requirement to apply to this year’s election rather than wait for voters to decide on the amendment in November. The amendment, if approved in November, would not go into effect until 2013. The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in U.S. District Court June 22.
James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to js firstname.lastname@example.org.