ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When it was time for former Rep. Tom Emmer to cast his vote on Election Day, he proudly held out his driver's license at the check-in table. It wasn't because poll workers at his home precinct in Delano wouldn't believe he was the real Tom Emmer, the Republican candidate for governor.
It had much more to do with making a political point that showing up at the polls with a photo ID isn't all that tough, an argument Emmer often used when he sponsored legislation requiring photo identification in past sessions.
In a recent blog post, Hamline University's David Schultz, a regular guest on KARE 11's newscasts, called the push for voter ID a public policy based on a political myth. But that's not how proponents see it.
I recall the day in 2009 when Schultz presented overwhelming statistical evidence to lawmakers that voter fraud is extremely rare, essentially a few isolated cases in an ocean of millions of legal votes. Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, accused Schultz of being condescending to those who support voter ID, and asserted the stats are low only because prosecutors don't pursue those types of crimes.
That heated exchange over stats came to mind a couple weeks ago at the Capitol when Rep. Gottwalt asked the people at an event in the Rotunda to raise their hands if they're related to someone with Alzheimer's Disease or caring for someone with that malady.
Everyone raised their hands, which proved a point that Alzheimer's is more pervasive than ever. The group, though, wasn't exactly a random sample. It was a rally marking Alzheimer's Day at the Capitol.
One of my journalism professors at the University of Kansas assigned us to read Michael Wheeler's 1976 book, "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics: The Manipulation of Public Opinion in America." The title was based on a quote often attributed to both Mark Twain and the British leader Benjamin Disraeli.
What my professor was trying to impart to us was, as journalists, we should to be ever vigilant about the use of stats. We're expected to examine the structure of a survey or body of research as we weigh the significance of the conclusions it's supposed to support.
Many years later we've all learned stats can be abused, and in today's political marketing climate we often see the distortions take hold as gospel truth. But you'll be hard pressed to prove voter fraud has changed the outcome of any election in Minnesota.
The 2011 Voter ID bill
Emmer's no longer in the legislature, but the new Republican majority is pushing ahead with his quest. Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, rolled out her voter ID plan Jan. 26th at a Capitol news conference.
"This photo ID bill is modeled on the Indiana photo ID law that's already been ruled constitutional twice, by the Indiana Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court," Rep. Kiffmeyer, who served as Secretary of State in Minnesota from 1999 to 2007, told reporters.
Kiffmeyer and other lawmakers said such a requirement, long opposed by Democrats as a barrier to voting ease, would increase the public's confidence in the integrity of the election system and conceivably raise turnout.
"I think the focus on integrity and public confidence in the process does increase voter turnout," Kiffmeyer asserted.
Her "21st Century System" would go much further than a simple ID check. It would essentially overhaul the entire election registration system, replacing the printed rosters with computer terminals at each polling place. Those electronic "books" will be used to cross-check the voter's name against a digital statewide voter registration database.
Kiffmeyer said the state will provide new photo ID cards at any Driver & Vehicle Safety bureau for voters who don't have a current photo. She said tribal ID cards would be accepted if their format mirrors state cards, in terms of the data fields, and can be swiped or scanned.
"It's a process that is more convenient for our voters, but especially for our election judges in the polling place on Election Day."
Kiffmeyer asked a contractor to demonstrate for reporters how licenses or other valid ID cards would be scanned, or swiped, at the check in table. It will verity that the encoded data on the voter's ID card corresponds with that person's information in the state registration database.
It will also flag election workers if the person already voted absentee or voted at a different polling place earlier. Once the machine verifies the voter is one and same as the person registered by that name and address, the machine prints out a voter receipt with a unique voter number for the voter to sign.
Currently those voter receipts are done by hand at the check-in table, after a check to see if the voter's name is on the printed roster. The voter then hands the slip of paper to the poll workers at the next table in exchange for blank ballot. At the end of the day the number of receipts is checked against the number of ballots counted by the optical scanning machines.
Minnesota has led the nation in voter turnout for decades, and the state's election system has been consistently praised by national experts for holding clean, transparent elections that encourage first-time voters through same-day registration.
That is why Democrats in the legislature consider Kiffmeyer's bill a solution in search of a problem, which will create an undue burden for seniors who haven't updated their licenses. They say the effort to block the extremely rare fraudulent voter would have the effect of keeping far more legitimate voters away from the polls.
"It basically makes our election judges into bouncers, checking ID's at the door and turning away people who they deem not worthy," Rep. Steve Simon, D-St. Louis Park, remarked, "And I don't think we want to go there with our elections in Minnesota."
Simon and fellow lawmakers cited research, including a study by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, estimating 25 percent of aging persons don't have licenses that are current. Supporters of Kiffmeyer's bill refute that notion, saying that in Minnesota all seniors are issued ID cards at age 65 that are valid for life.
He also cited a survey of Minnesota prosecutors by the Citizens for Election Integrity in Minnesota, showing nine ten-thousandths of one percent (0.0009%) of 2008 voters were convicted of fraud. Most were released felons who voted while still on parole, who wouldn't be stopped a by photo ID law because their licenses don't reflect a criminal record.
"The real reason Republicans push a photo ID bill is they think that's the best and most efficient way to block voters getting the polls who they think are going to vote for Democrats," Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said.
He pointed out that in Kiffmeyer's bill only family members could assist blind voters and other people with disabilities. There's no provision for allowing friends to do so if there are no family available.
Winkler also noted there's no mention in Kiffmeyer's bill of how absentee ballots would be handled in the new system.
"If you need a photo ID to vote, you're either going to eliminate absentee balloting entirely or you're not going to require a photo ID for absentee balloting."
Proponents of the bill say, on the contrary, the new law will allow absentee voting but those voters will have to write their license number or ID number on their ballot application.
Cost of Electronic System
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie Wednesday suggested the cost of installing the new electronic roster books at 5,000 polling places across Minnesota would cost $20 million. Democrats pointed out that the state of Missouri spent $18 million printing new ID's alone.
Ritchie pointed to many concrete changes in administrative rules and election enacted in the wake of the 2008 election, which led to a protracted recount for the US Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken.
Those include streamlined absentee ballot applications, a clarification of which ballots are used in a hand recount, clearly defined instructions for which stray marks can disqualify ballots and a new ground rules for the use opening wrongly rejected absentee ballots.
Rep. Kiffmeyer, who lost to Ritchie in her bid for a third term, said the upfront costs of establishing an electronic registration system would be recouped by savings in the time staff now spend manually updating voter rolls and voter history.
"It takes almost six months for Hennepin County to enter all the data as far as who voted," Kiffmeyer said, "When you do a system like this that data is entered immediately."
The Felon Factor
The Minnesota Majority, a self-described election watchdog organization that once used Kiffmeyer as a consultant, has lobbied for voter photo ID for years. The group routinely hunts for possible cases of voter fraud, but can't do that until those voter histories are current.
Last year the group cross-matched a database of released felons with the database of voters to create a list of 600 potential felons who voted in the 2008 election, and even posited the theory that felon voters tipped the senate race in favor of Franken, who won by 312 votes.
But when that list was turned over to prosecutors, it turned out at least 80 percent of the felons named weren't the same people who voted, or they were felons who no longer were barred from voting because their rights had been restored.
In the end, Hennepin County prosecuted 47 voter fraud cases from the 2008 election, including 43 felon voters and 4 cases of double voting. Ramsey County prosecuted 69 convicted felons for registering and/or voting while still on probation. Fifteen of them registered but were stopped before the could vote.
Minnesota Majority's Dan McGrath predicted that total will grow higher because many cases are still pending. He said other paroled felons voted but couldn't be charged because they weren't aware they weren't allowed to take part in the election.
McGrath said the state's master voter registration database is supposed to reflect whether a person is temporarily ineligible to vote based on a criminal conviction. But he said that doesn't help with brand new voters who register on election day, because they're not on the roster.
The total number of felons convicted of voting illegally, fewer than 100, is statistically very small in a pool of 2.9 million who voted in 2008. But every fraudulent vote cancels out a legitimate vote, which is especially worrisome for candidates in local races decided by a handful of votes or less.
Is it fair, however, to assume felons cancel out Republican votes? That's based on the notion that felons as a group are largely from urban areas that tend skew to the Democrat side.
Rob Stewart, a University of Minnesota sociology student currently on parole for a drug-related conviction, told KARE he didn't perceive his fellow inmates as predominantly liberals.
"I personally found there were a lot of people of both persuasions and a lot of people in the middle when I was in the corrections system," Stewart said Wednesday following the Second Chances Coalition rally at the Capitol.
At that gathering Sen. John Harrington, D-St. Paul, said he's introducing legislation to immediately restore voting rights to all felons as soon as they're released. Harrington, the former police chief of St. Paul, said it would free up prosecutors do concentrate on other crimes and it would give released convicts more of a sense of belonging to the community.
As Stewart put it, "We're just as affected by every policy decision made at the State Capitol, or anywhere else. And if we don't have that opportunity to interject our opinion by voting, we're just silent members of society."
If felons could legally vote, the battle against election cheaters would be directed more to double voting and people who impersonate legitimate voters. The number of double voters caught in 2008, according to McGrath, was 40.
(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)