On Hold or On Ice?
Co-ops host debate on Voter ID
Add this item to the list of ways Wisconsin and Minnesota are the same but different: In 2011, both states’ legislatures adopted proposals to create photo-ID requirements for voting. In 2013, neither has a photo-ID requirement in place.
The difference? Wisconsin’s ID law was overturned by two Dane County judges in separate lawsuits. Its fate will be decided by appellate courts before the 2014 elections, a fact that guarantees yet another intense battle this April over a pivotal seat on the state Supreme Court. Minnesota Voter ID was presented as a constitutional amendment and rejected last November. It’s a dead issue there, unless and until the Legislature advances a new proposal.
Continuing Cooperative Network’s tradition of a “Great Debate” at its November annual meeting, members gathered in La Crosse exactly one week after the Minnesota amendment went down to defeat and heard spirited presentations by advocates on opposite sides of the Voter ID issue.
Minnesota State Representative (now Senator) Mary Kiffmeyer (R–Big Lake) brought a unique perspective to the Great Debate. As secretary of state for eight years, she was Minnesota’s chief administrator of elections, and in the 2011–12 Legislature was the primary House author of the Voter ID bill.
Speaking first, Kiffmeyer said conditions for voter eligibility common to all 50 state constitutions are citizenship, age, and residency, making implicit the need for voter identification. “How can you know someone is of voting age, and their residency, and a U.S. citizen without knowing who they are?” she asked.
She listed activities requiring formal identification: Purchasing liquor, boarding an airplane, claiming government benefits, participation in union elections in Minnesota and—needling Attorney General Eric Holder who has intervened against state voter ID laws—entering the office of the U.S. attorney general.
Questionable integrity of ballot-counting has inflamed controversies in hotly contested elections, Kiffmeyer acknowledged, citing the 2000 Florida recount that led ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore. But while accurate counting is one necessity, she said, there are others. “If you get fraudulent ballots into the ballot box, counting them accurately is no way to have honest elections—if you’re counting ballots that never should have been there to begin with.”
Many such ballots were cast in Minnesota’s 2008 election, Kiffmeyer contends.
Wisconsin and Minnesota are among 10 states with same-day registration laws letting voters appear at the polls on Election Day, register, and cast a ballot. Later, election officials seek to confirm the validity of these registrations by mailing verification cards to the names and addresses they were given.
“If the postal verification card comes back as undeliverable, that means one of two things: That person does not live there, or there is no such address,” Kiffmeyer said.
About 28,000 same-day Minnesota registrations from 2008 came back undeliverable. After resolving various errors that flagged many of them, Kiffmeyer says, “there are still, to this day, 6,224 ballots that were cast by people who we cannot find or whose address is nonexistent.”
That election, she adds, led to a recount that determined the occupant of one of Minnesota’s two U.S. Senate seats—by a statewide margin of 312 votes.
In addition to the 6,224 unverifiable voters, 1,099 ineligible felons were found to have voted, Kiffmeyer said. A registered nurse, she says she believes in “prevention, not prosecution,” and that it’s “the duty and responsibility of each citizen” to prove they are who they say they are at the polls.
“There are trillions of dollars at stake, untold power, presidential elections,” Kiffmeyer said. “It’s amazing to me that you have liars and cheaters and stealers everywhere else in the world but somehow we’re expected to believe that only angels come to vote.”
Kiffmeyer’s scheduled opponent, Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson (D–Milwaukee), was forced to cancel the day before the event to attend a Madison caucus where he would be elected minority leader. David Jenkins—a former Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association statewide manager who originated the idea a decade earlier and participated in the first “Great Debate”—was recruited to help find a replacement. With the search looking futile and less than 24 hours to prepare, Jenkins graciously offered to step in.
He opened his remarks by recalling the first time he accompanied his father to the polls, in 1956. “Voting,” Jenkins said, “is as close as we have to a sacred rite in a secular sphere.”
“We were going to a place where there were a lot of people, but there was no loud talking. It was very serious, a solemn responsibility,” he said. “People were different when they were in line to vote. I think we can agree that voting is a very, very special thing. It’s not like buying liquor or getting on an airplane. It’s different. There’s nothing quite like it in our democracy.”
Jenkins says Wisconsin has long conducted honest elections without Voter ID and observes that at least four amendments to the U.S. Constitution have addressed voting rights, none of them imposing voter identification requirements. “Our whole history, at least since 1870, has been one of expanding, extending, and protecting the right to vote.”
He maintains that the push for Voter ID laws has occurred mainly since 2011 and calls it “hard to believe” that there is a sudden “tidal wave of malefactors committing fraud in our elections.”
Wisconsin’s election problems, Jenkins says, are limited mainly to felons voting before they regain eligibility. He calls for solving that problem by modernizing our “antiquated, paper-based voter registration system” so that various departments and agencies can “weed out the names of people who are ineligible to vote for whatever reason.”
Numerous Arizona counties have done so and find it saves them money, Jenkins says, adding, “We haven’t talked yet about the cost of these voter registration and other Voter ID types of laws…It’s not going to be free to do what many of these states have done.”
“Finally,” Jenkins argues, “there is a history and context to this.” He recalls the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and says the Voting Rights Act of 1965, renewed repeatedly with overwhelming bipartisan support, is under constitutional challenge to its requirement that some states and localities obtain U.S. Justice Department permission before revising their election laws.
“If the very constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act can be challenged successfully, that’s going to set our country back and open the door to all kinds of abuses of people’s right to vote,” he warns.
Nineteen states have adopted Voter ID laws in recent years. Many people call them a solution in search of a problem. Many others say it defies common sense to claim they aren’t needed. Some of those arguments will be settled entirely by voters; others will be settled by judges elected by the voters.
But in every case, it will all come down to who votes.—Dave Hoopman, director of regulatory affairs, Electric Division, Cooperative Network