Minnesota high court takes up voter ID wording

A decision is expected in August in time for the November election.

Bryna Godar

Minnesota Supreme Court justices examined the voter ID ballot question Tuesday in the first in a series of hearings surrounding the November ballot.

In rapid-fire questioning, justices attempted to establish whether the ballot question is misleading and the extent of their authority to change or omit it.

The court is expected to rule by late August to allow time for ballot printing and absentee voting.

During the hearing, two justices openly stated the wording was misleading, but joined other justices and attorneys in questioning potential ways to intervene.

The ballot question currently reads: “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?”

Thomas Boyd, who represents the Minnesota Legislature, argued that the Legislature has “exclusive authority” to present the amendment to the people for a vote. To rule against the question, he said, the court would have to find the wording “so unreasonable and misleading to be a palpable evasion of the right to vote.”

Much of the discussion focused on the difference between “valid photo identification,” as stated in the question and “valid government-issued photographic identification,” the language used in the amendment.

“Not to be crass about it, but it’s a bit of a bait and switch,” Justice Alan Page said.

At one point, Justice Paul Anderson  asked whether student IDs from state-sponsored institutions — including the University of Minnesota — would be valid. Boyd said that from his understanding of the amendment, they would not be.

Anderson suggested that when students vote on the amendment, they could be confused about whether their student IDs are valid.

“Whether they go to Macalester or Morris or the Twin Cities campus, the good student is going to read the amendment,” Boyd said.

The courtroom filled quickly for the arguments, and justices were quick to interrupt the lawyers — and each other — with concerns. One of the seven justices, Helen Meyer, recused from the case without explanation.

Ryan Lyk, chair of Minnesota College Republicans, said he thinks students will support the amendment once they know the specifics.

“If a student does not have an ID for some reason, they can get one free from the government,” said Lyk, a political science and pre-law senior. “And if they already have one, then they’re already fine.”

The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group is opposing the voter ID amendment because it discriminates against students, said member Abrahm Neuser.

Neuser, a political science and global studies junior, said he thinks the wording is confusing for students.

“Reading it for the first time, it sounds like a good idea — it sounds like they’re protecting the integrity of our election system,” Neuser said.

As students learn more about the amendment, however, he thinks fewer will support it.

Provisional balloting

During the hearing, William Pentelovitch, who represents the League of Women Voters Minnesota and a coalition of groups, focused largely on the absence of provisional balloting from the question.

Under the amendment, if voters don’t have the required ID at the poll, they would cast a provisional ballot. They would then have an allotted amount of time to obtain a valid ID and present it for their vote to count.

“No voter looking at the ballot question standing on its own would have any idea they were voting to institute provisional balloting,” Pentelovitch said. “To me, that’s the biggest flaw in this.”

Anderson shared those concerns.

“You have a major omission here that I think can cause real problems for the voter,” he said, addressing Boyd.

After the hearing on the question’s wording, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he would raise the issue of the ballot question’s title with another lawsuit.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie changed the title from the Legislature’s version of “Photo Identification Required for Voting” to one that says “Changes to In-Person & Absentee Voting & Voter Registration; Provisional Ballots.”

Ritchie also moved to rename the marriage amendment, which would constitutionally define marriage as between one man and one woman. A lawsuit against this action is set for a July 31 hearing in the Supreme Court.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report