Recount feeds GOP election reform push
Photo ID and abolition of same-day registration among likely targets
Two elections, two statewide recounts at taxpayer expense that threaten to stretch out for month after tedious month: Something must be wrong with the system.
Incoming Republican legislative majorities know that widespread public distaste for the recount process represents a political opportunity to push for election law changes they have championed for years, and they are planning a legislative offensive around several such proposals in 2011. Photo ID requirements for voting, which were a key talking point in GOP legislative campaigns, are at the top of what could prove a lengthy wish list.
House Rep. and GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer was always a leading GOP proponent of photo identification requirements. His bills attracted a gaggle of GOP co-authors and sparked heated debates on the House and Senate floors.
Photo ID will be the likely centerpiece of GOP election proposals. A large Republican freshman class is itching to take on the issue, as are a number of returning GOP legislators who labored in vain on the idea when they were in the minority.
Old proposals, new climate
State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who has co-authored a photo ID bill, said there is wide support in both the House and Senate caucuses for the proposal. And his rationale makes direct reference to the recount imbroglios of the past two elections: “The uncertainly that is created because of the loose election laws has created a great deal of expectation that Minnesota get its election laws right,” said Drazkowski.
With Emmer gone from the Legislature, former Secretary of State and current Republican House Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer figures to be a leader in the charge. She already has a photo identification bill in the works that she plans to introduce early in 2011, as well as a slew of less-touted overhauls that are likely to make their way into an election reform package sometime during session.
“Getting [photo ID] through the Legislature is no question,” Kiffmeyer said. “Next to the issues of spending and taxes and health care, photo ID is right up there.”
The photo identification bill will be similar to those introduced in the past, with some minor language changes, Kiffmeyer said. That means under the bill, those who show up at the polls without a driver’s license or some other form of ID would only be allowed to cast provisional ballots, which would be nullified if those voters don’t return within a certain number of days with documentation to prove their identity.
Republicans have long argued the measure would cut down on abuses by making it harder for ineligible voters such as non-citizens and convicted felons on probation to cast ballots in person on Election Day. Democrats, including Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, have fiercely opposed such bills, saying that thousands of aging voters who no longer have valid driver’s licenses would likely be tripped up by the rule.
In a letter sent out by the conservative group Minnesota Voters Alliance, president Andy Cilek wrote that the November election provided a “golden opportunity” to implement photo ID, saying “with a Republican-controlled Legislature, it will be much less difficult to get this vital voter protection measure passed….if [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty is still in office in January, he would undoubtedly sign it.”
And if Mark Dayton, who opposes the measure, is governor? “If Dayton wins and is seated sooner rather than later,” wrote Cilek, “we are already preparing a campaign to urge him to sign the bill, including our photo ID petition in St. Paul [on] which we have nearly 3,000 signatures.”
If the petition doesn’t work, Cilek proposes a statewide constitutional amendment. “Eighty-two percent of last Rasmussen poll support photo ID requirement for voting,” he noted. “The governor does not have to sign a constitutional amendment; it goes from the Legislature directly to the voters!”
Ending same-day registration
Kiffmeyer is also interested in pursuing other election law changes. State law currently allows voters to register at their polling places on election day. It also permits established residents of a precinct to vouch for up to 15 people they know personally who may lack proper ID or address verification. Kiffmeyer would like to eliminate, or tighten, both those provisions in law. She noted that this year at the University of Minnesota, some students allegedly vouched for people they did not know.
Kiffmeyer also wants to tighten the state’s vote reconciliation law to make sure all counties go through a uniform process for matching total ballots cast with the number of people who have signed a precinct’s election register. In this year’s gubernatorial recount battle, Emmer’s legal team petitioned the state Supreme Court to require counties and precincts that did not reconcile votes in that manner to go back and do so. The court denied the request. (State law and administrative rules currently allow the use of either the register or of voter receipts to do reconciliation tallies.)
“I want to make sure that Hennepin and Ramsey counties are on the record as understanding the law so they can’t say something different,” Kiffmeyer said. “Sometimes they think they are in a universe of their own. There should be consistency across the state.”
Election overhauls have been mostly partisan battles at the Capitol. In 2009, legislators vowed to put their political differences aside and get down to working out the kinks in the system. The stinging reality of the U.S. Senate recount between Democrat Al Franken and incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman was ever present; as legislators debated, Minnesota had yet to seat a second senator.
Lawmakers tried to pass a series of overhauls, but the process was punctuated by fights on the floor. Republicans wanted voter identification at the polls included, Democrats in the majority did not, and Pawlenty ultimately vetoed that year’s elections bill because, he said, it represented little agreement between the two sides.
In 2010, legislators tried again after holding a series of meetings with Hennepin County Elections Manager Rachel Smith and University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs on possible solutions that both parties might find acceptable. Pawlenty ultimately signed a bill that tightened up election administration and the absentee balloting process, among other things.
State Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the situation will be the same this year.
“The bottom line is that any election bill has to be bipartisan,” he said. “We’ve seen over the last four years that that’s been the case. Gov. Pawlenty exercised his veto authority when he thought the bill wasn’t bipartisan, and I’m almost positive that a Gov. Dayton will do the same thing.”
Simon, who worked closely on several election proposals last session, said there are areas in which Republicans and Democrats agree that further changes are needed, including changes to the vote threshold that triggers an automatic recount and modifications to campaign finance reporting.
“It’s the bipartisan election bills that were a success, not the partisan fantasies,” he said. “Nothing has changed.”