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Ritchie, auditors pan voter ID amendment as costly, unnecessary

By John Myers

Forum Communications

DULUTH – Most of the argument over whether Minnesota should require separate photo ID cards for people to vote has focused on how much voter fraud occurs in the state.

Supporters of voter ID cards say the cards will stop widespread fraud. Opponents say the evidence that shows fraud is almost nonexistent and that the card requirement might keep some people from voting.

But Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer, and some county auditors say there are several other problems with the amendment that most people have never heard of — most notably the cost to taxpayers.

Ritchie said the state is in for some major election headaches trying to account for absentee, overseas military and even rural voters who now vote by mail. And he said it will virtually eliminate same-day registration, which has been credited with pushing Minnesota voter participation to among the highest in the nation.

“It’s not like a law passed by the Legislature, where we can go back and fix or tweak the next year,” Ritchie said in a recent interview with the News Tribune. “This will be forever. This will be in the constitution, and it’s full of really serious problems.”

The amendment was placed on the November ballot by the Republican-controlled Legislature, with the question off-limits for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to veto.

Ritchie, who is in charge of overseeing that state elections run well, is encouraging all Minnesotans to find and read the full wording of the amendment because, by order of the Minnesota Supreme Court, the actual wording of constitutional amendment isn’t on the ballot.

“Not only will the actual words in the amendment not appear on the ballot, but the question on the ballot doesn’t address all the issues involved here,” Ritchie said.

For example, voters across parts of rural St. Louis County, in so-called unorganized townships, now cast all their election ballots by mail. But Ritchie said that may be impossible if the constitutional amendment passes because no one sees them vote; no one could demand their identification card.

“There were amendments offered to solve many of these problems, but the Legislature voted all of them down. Now we have this very bad amendment question and it’s either an up or down vote,” Ritchie said.

But Dan McGrath, who heads the pro-amendment group Protect My Vote, said the election officials, mostly DFLers, are exaggerating the impacts of the amendment to strike fear into voters. McGrath said any hiccups caused by the amendment in how elections are actually carried out can easily be addressed by the 2013 Legislature.

For example, McGrath says the amendment allows “substantially equivalent” identification for voting that will cover military and other mail-in votes.

“The secretary of state, who claims ‘substantially equivalent’ processes are impossible,’ either lacks imagination or is using bureaucratic code for ‘I don’t want to,’ “ McGrath said. “The amendment was designed to a specific purpose with specific outcomes. It was not designed to eliminate absentee or mail ballot voting. That’s why it makes a distinction between in-person and not-in-person voting. ‘Substantially equivalent’ does not mean identical. It means as close as circumstances allow.”

Ritchie said the amendment will cost millions of dollars to implement statewide, a cost borne mostly by property owners in townships and counties, as those local governments have to buy new computer equipment to issue and verify the cards.

Ritchie estimates it will cost $40 million to $60 million across the state to adopt the new ID system, and an additional $10 to $20 million each election to run it — mostly the cost of new computer software that will be updated to match photos with addresses.

The St. Louis County Board last year passed a resolution against the voter ID requirement based, in part, on the likelihood the state would pass on most cost of enforcing the ID rule to counties and townships. And Randy Maluchnik, president of the Association of Minnesota Counties, warned in a recent report to his group that “if this becomes another unfunded mandate on local governments, property taxpayers will end up picking up this tab.”

Don Dicklich, St. Louis County auditor, the persons in charge of elections across the largest county in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River, said the lack of details on how the amendment would be enforced is troubling. He said many hundreds of voters in remote parts of the county will be affected.

“In many of the unorganized townships, there is no public place to vote” that complies with all rules and regulations for election access, Dicklich said. “It will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars just to build accessible polling locations … unless we are able to ask them to drive a long way to another township that has a polling place. In which case, how many people simply won’t bother to vote?”

Dicklich’s office recently estimated the total cost to the county for complying with the voter ID amendment could cost county taxpayers between $500,000 and nearly $1 million for the 2014 primary and general elections.

Here’s what voters will see on the ballot:

Amendment 2: Shall the Minnesota Constitution 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, effective July 1, 2013?

Here’s the current Minnesota constitutional language on voting and what will be added (b and c) if the voter ID ballot question is approved:

Article VII, Section 1. (a) Every person 18 years of age or more who has been a citizen of the United States for three months and who has resided in the precinct for 30 days next preceding an election shall be entitled to vote in that precinct. The place of voting by one otherwise qualified who has changed his residence within 30 days preceding the election shall be prescribed by law. The following persons shall not be entitled or permitted to vote at any election in this state: A person not meeting the above requirements; a person who has been convicted of treason or felony, unless restored to civil rights; a person under guardianship, or a person who is insane or not mentally competent.

(b) All voters voting in person must present valid government-issued photographic identification before receiving a ballot. The state must issue photographic identification at no charge to an eligible voter who does not have a form of identification meeting the requirements of this section. A voter unable to present government-issued photographic identification must be permitted to submit a provisional ballot. A provisional ballot must only be counted if the voter certifies the provisional ballot in the manner provided by law.

(c) All voters, including those not voting in person, must be subject to substantially equivalent identity and eligibility verification prior to a ballot being cast or counted.

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