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The Wealthy One Percent That’s Behind Minnesota’s Voter ID Push

Tuesday, 14 February 2012 08:00 By Brentin Mock, Colorlines.com | Report
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The perennial swing state of Minnesota is the latest to be enthralled in debate over Republican-led efforts to create new voting restrictions that civil rights groups say will undermine voter access for low-income people of color, the disabled, youth and immigrants, among others. And a new watchdog report argues this week that the wealthy one percent of Minnesota are behind those efforts.

The report, by the group TakeAction Minnesota, describes how Minnesota’s wealthiest finance institutions and their executives, lobbying groups, PACs and the chamber of commerce have been pooling funds together, sharing resources, and in some cases sharing office suite space in a collective effort that’s at least partially responsible for a Republican takeover of the state legislature in 2010.

The group’s report shows more correlation than causation when it comes to the voter ID initiative. But it’s instructive in detailing the way serious money is shaping state-level politics where basic civil rights issues like the right to vote are at stake.

An example of this is Wells Fargo executive vice president Jon Campbell chairing the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the state’s top lobby, joining together with the Minnesota Business Partnership, the state’s third largest lobby, for a mega-lobby called MN Forward, which focuses on slashing corporate taxes and cutting government spending. All the entities — the Chamber, the Partnership, MN Forward — have flooded hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years into the coffers of Republican candidates, some of whom are architects of a photo ID voter mandate that Republicans would like to have placed on a referendum ballot in November.

Says the report, the banks’ “executives and board members have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates who will make it harder for members of the 99 percent of the population to vote.”

What TakeAction Minnesota is asking of its report’s readers is to accept the idea that voter ID rules widen the disparities between those with power largesse and those with power limited by suppressing the one democratic franchise all citizens possess: voting.

For Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, the issue is less about the legal and policy merits of voter ID laws — though that’s important — and more about a larger problem listed in the report as, “An intentional effort to reduce the voting rolls in order to help corporate conservatives further expand their wealth and power.”

In an interview with Colorlines.com, McGrath said, “For us, this is about calling out issues like race, because so much of this is racialized, and calling out the financial interests who’ve been moving this agenda along.”

Whether there’s “intentional effort” on the part of banks like Wells Fargo is, at best, debatable. But the Minnesota photo ID law doesn’t exist in isolation. There are over 30 states that have voter ID restrictions, some mandating a state-issued photo identification card. No matter what state, though, the impact is the same: potential for voter suppression.

This was illustrated in a scene this week when Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim African American, held a press conference at the state capitol opposing the photo ID proposal. He stood with Mai Thor, who spoke from her wheelchair about how her voting rights would be compromised, and Somali-American Sadik Warfa, who said that a photo ID requirement would painfully remind Somali-Americans of the governments they escaped to the U.S. from. Minnesota is home to the nation’s largest Somali immigrant population.

Republican supporters of the ballot insist they are actually protecting voters by preventing bogeymen like “voter fraud” and “voter impersonation” from surfacing. It’s the common refrain among Republicans across the country who want the photo ID laws, even though voter fraud and impersonation barely occur.

Also common is that many of the states passing voter ID laws are linked to a conservative association called the American Legislative Exchange Council, which bands conservative state lawmakers with private business interests to push for bills that reduce if not kill government. ALEC is funded by the Koch Brothers and was founded by Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, who once said, “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now.”

With that in mind, consider that ALEC created a model bill for voter ID legislation that some states have adopted for their own bills. And as Ari Berman reported in The Nation, five states passed voter ID laws last year, and in each of them the bill’s sponsor was an ALEC member

If Minnesota gets its photo ID bill on the ballot and it passes, it will join those ranks.

State Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer is ALEC’s state chairman for Minnesota. She is also the author of a photo ID bill that passed both state chambers last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton. Of the GOP sponsors of Minnesota’s photo ID amendment, 15 are ALEC members, according to the TakeAction report. ALEC is also responsible for current voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas — both of which have been flagged by the Department of Justice for possible civil rights Voting Rights Act violations — and Wisconsin, the state that is said to have the strictest voting laws in the country.

There is no existing evidence that photo ID laws will prevent fraud. There is evidence that photo ID laws will cost taxpayers money to implement. Despite the priority of conservative agencies like ALEC and MN Forward to cut government spending, the cost of preserving voter ID laws could run in the millions. In Wisconsin, there are untold costs to produce thousands of new voter cards for students since their college IDs aren’t eligible for voting.

In South Carolina, the state is lawyering up to fight the DOJ off of their voter ID laws, a fight that might cost the state as much as $1 million.

In Minnesota, Gov. Dayton vetoed the voter ID bill because he found that it would cost the state $23 million for an “unfunded mandate.”

Rep. Kiffmeyer, the lead sponsor on the vetoed bill, is Minnesota’s former Secretary of State. During that tenure, she attempted a number of actions that might have disenfranchised voters had courts not blocked them. In 2004, Kiffmeyer attempted a rule that would have required voters to have a valid ID that “exactly matched” the information on her registered voter rolls. Two years later, she ruled on Election Day that college students could not use utility bills to prove their residence when voting. Same year, she tried to ban special identification cards used by Native Americans unless the voter could prove they were residents of their tribe’s reservation. In every case, courts overturned Rep. Kiffmeyer’s maneuvers.

Meanwhile, consider an Indiana University study published in the Journal of Law and Politics in 2009 that examined the voter ID law issue in Indiana, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s law the year before. In their report, they found that of 2.8 million people who voted in the 2008 general election, 1,039 showed up at polls with no ID. That group filled out provisional ballots, but only 137 of them were counted. These numbers are small, but clear data about how voting rules affect voter turnout is basically nonexistent elsewhere in the country. The study’s authors wrote that the Indiana case “presents the clearest evidence yet that the photo identification requirement has a disenfranchising impact on hundreds of Indiana residents who want to have their democratic voices heard.”

Republicans who want voter ID laws claim that fraud is the impetus, but can’t make any solid claim about its existence. Meanwhile, those fighting to preserve voting rights can point to very real instances where disenfranchisement actually took place, from America’s suffrage and Jim Crow history to Rep. Kiffmeyer’s tricks with Native Americans. There may or may not be “intentional efforts” to corrupt democracy behind these photo ID laws, but the impacts are clear.

Reprinted with permission of Colorlines.com. Sign up to receive Colorlines Direct, a weekly email digest of key stories on Colorlines.com. You'll get award-winning news from our multi-racial team of writers covering hot topics and a broad range of issues from a racial justice perspective.

Brentin Mock

Brentin Mock is a Washington DC-based journalist and contributor to Demos blog PolicyShop on voting rights and civil rights. He also serves as a reporting fellow for Colorlines.com where he covers national politics, and as a contributor at Grist.org, covering environmental justice. He previously served as lead reporter for Voting Rights Watch 2012, a joint effort between Colorlines and The Nation magazine. You can read some his other work at Next American City, Facing South, The Root, In These Times, American Prospect and The Washington Post.


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