On Tuesday night, roughly 100 people gathered at Maplewood City Hall to hear a debate on the proposed constitutional amendment requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. The lively discussion featured former Gov. Arne Carlson and ACLU lobbying coordinator Carolyn Jackson speaking against the ballot initiative, while GOP state Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer and Minnesota Majority Executive Director Dan McGrath argued in favor of it.
Moderator Jon Brandt, who chairs the Maplewood Civil Rights Commission, referred to it as a “blue ribbon panel of informed speakers.”
But just days earlier, the composition of the panel scheduled to discuss the photo ID amendment looked much different. League of Women Voters public policy coordinator Sherri Knuth was supposed to join Jackson in arguing against the proposal, while Northwest College professor Kent Kaiser was slated to pair up with McGrath to argue the amendment’s merits. An official from Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s office was scheduled to be on hand to provide unbiased information about the ballot initiative.
But after Kaiser dropped out last week owing to a work obligation, it created a domino effect of lineup changes. Kiffmeyer, the chief sponsor of legislation putting the amendment on the ballot and a former secretary of state, signed on to argue in favor of passage.
Fear of appearing partisan
But her inclusion caused both the League of Women Voters and the Secretary of State’s Office to drop out of the event. The reason? They didn’t want to be seen as engaging in partisan activities. The League of Women Voters has come out in opposition to the photo ID amendment, but it doesn’t endorse candidates and seeks to stay neutral in order to host inclusive candidate forums across the state.
“We do not participate in events or forums where we are debating somebody who is a candidate for office,” explained Laura Fredrick Wang, executive director of the League of Women Voters. “It creates an impression that we are going up against that individual. That’s against our mission and our policies, and that’s something that we never do.”
The Secretary of State’s Office would seemingly have less to fear in this regard, as its designated role for the event wasn’t to argue for or against the amendment. But in a statement released to Capitol Report, the Secretary of State’s Office reiterated that the changes in the event had caused it to reconsider participating. “Due to the change in the nature and format of the event, the forum was no longer appropriate for the participation of the Office of the Secretary of State,” said John Kavanagh, the office’s director of communications.
Kaiser thinks that reaction was over the top. “If the person was there only for information, it’s odd that they would drop out only because Mary’s there,” said Kaiser, who worked in the Secretary of State’s Office under both Kiffmeyer and Ritchie. “That’s kind of lame.”
Kiffmeyer insists she was unfazed by the upheaval her inclusion in the event caused. “I have no reaction,” she said. “That’s their decision.”
The dustup over the lineup for the Maplewood forum highlights the increasingly tricky politics of the photo ID amendment. When the proposal was initially put on the ballot, it was widely assumed that it would pass by an overwhelming margin. That’s because polling data showed that voters strongly favored requiring individuals to show a photo ID at the polls. A 2011 Star Tribune poll, for instance, found 80 percent support for such a proposal.
Political tensions ratcheting up
But as DFL opposition to the amendment has stiffened and the campaign fighting the ballot initiative has coalesced — uniting such disparate groups as the AARP, the Minnesota AFL-CIO, The Arc Greater Twin Cities and TakeAction Minnesota — polls have indicated a significant erosion in support for the measure. Most recently, Public Policy Polling released a poll showing support for the amendment at 51 percent, compared to 43 percent in opposition. That 8-point gap is down from a 24-point spread in a similar poll conducted by the same firm in June.
The tightening polls have helped to raise political tensions surrounding the amendment and the activities of advocates on both sides. In particular, members of the Republican legislative majorities that passed the Voter ID amendment have increasingly cried foul at Ritchie’s spirited public opposition to the amendment. Last week Sens. Scott Newman, of Hutchinson, and Mike Parry, of Waseca, filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings alleging that Ritchie wrongly utilized public resources to campaign against the ballot initiative and spread inaccurate information.
“Even a cursory review of these documents shows their plain purpose of advocacy for Mr. Ritchie’s position in opposition to the proposed amendment,” reads the complaint. “More important, in the view of these complainants, these published website documents are rife with falsehoods and misinformation clearly intended to misinform voters as to the nature of the amendments they will be considering.”
In response, Ritchie’s office issued a statement indicating that they do not comment on pending litigation.
The League of Women Voters has also come under fire over its opposition to both the photo ID proposal and the proposed amendment prohibiting gay marriage. Some GOP candidates for office have refused to participate in forums organized by the group, arguing that it’s not a neutral arbiter. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, for instance, who was his chamber’s chief sponsor of the bill putting the marriage amendment on the ballot, bowed out of a debate on the issue scheduled to take place in Brainerd last month owing in part to concerns about the League of Women Voters’ stance on the amendment.
Despite the last-minute change in the lineup for Tuesday’s debate on the photo ID amendment, it proceeded without problems. Proponents of the proposal cast it as a common-sense solution to questions about election integrity that will have little cost and not hinder voter turnout.
“My motive and my mission is about the integrity of the election system,” Kiffmeyer told the crowd.
But opponents of the amendment described wildly different ramifications if the ballot measure is passed. They predicted that it will disenfranchise soldiers serving oversees, old people and those living in remote regions of the state, cost local governments millions of dollars and endanger same-day voter registration. “I wouldn’t be here if what these people said was accurate,” said Carlson, who was twice elected governor as a Republican but has increasingly allied himself with DFLers in recent years. “Amending the constitution of the state of Minnesota is immensely important.”