Republicans in control of the Minnesota Senate are renewing a push for a photo ID requirement to vote, nearly eight years after voters rejected a constitutional amendment attempting to do the same thing.
The amendment failed in 2012 with roughly 52% of Minnesotans opposed, but in a video posted to Twitter on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he didn't think it was "clear in people's minds what actually we were trying to do" back then.
"We are going to push hard this year to say, if you're voting you have to have an ID to vote," said Gazelka, of Nisswa. "I think it matters. I think with all the things that have been happening around us, people want to know that the elections are secure, and we're standing up and saying this is something we're going to do."
Over the years, Republicans have argued that stricter photo ID requirements will help ensure better election integrity, preventing people from voting fraudulently. But critics have said the measure is really designed as a way to discourage people from voting, disproportionately affecting low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, as well as the elderly and people with disabilities. In total, 36 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of ID at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seven states have a strict photo ID requirement to vote, including Wisconsin.
The proposal is already facing tough resistance from DFLers, who are in control of the state House and governor's office. The 2020 legislative session begins Feb. 11.
"We know that voter fraud is such a rare occurrence," said DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who was serving in Congress when the amendment came up for a vote in Minnesota. "This is a solution looking for a problem that's not there, simply to make it more difficult [to vote]."
DFL Rep. John Lesch, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, called back to the 2012 election, when the photo ID amendment was on the ballot as well as an amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the Constitution. Voters ultimately defeated both amendments and Democrats swept control of the Legislature.
Lesch said he thinks Republicans want to campaign on the issue of photo ID again in 2020, when all 201 legislators are on the ballot. Republicans have a narrow 35-32 majority in the Senate.
"It seems like they just never learn their lesson and they still want to put this out there as an electoral payoff for their members," said Lesch, who doesn't plan to hold a hearing on photo ID in his committee this session. "They want their members to campaign on it because they know the Minnesota Senate is going to be won or lost in greater Minnesota. It's not a genuine concern that there are any problems with voting in Minnesota."
Republicans are switching up their approach this time, pushing photo ID as a change in state law instead of as an amendment to the Constitution. Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, authored the photo ID constitutional amendment in 2012 and said he thinks the issue got caught up in backlash over the same-sex marriage ban. He's now authoring the legislative proposal and wants it to be debated as a "stand-alone issue."
"We have a different governor now. We have different legislators in place now. It's an issue that I've always been interested in and enough time has now elapsed where perhaps it's time to discuss it again," he said. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with bringing a bill and having a new discussion on it."
Republicans have shied away from photo ID since 2012, but they've clashed with Democrats on other election issues, including the release of $6.6 million in federal funding last session to secure state election systems. Minnesota was the last state in the nation to unlock those funds in 2019.
The federal government recently approved another round of money, meaning election security funding will be back up for debate this year. DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon said Republicans should focus on election cybersecurity protection instead of photo ID.
Minnesota was one of 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian-affiliated hackers in 2016.
"We have to keep our eye on the ball here," Simon said. "The number one threat to the integrity of our election system is the prospect of an adversary trying to mess with our Democracy. It is not the kind of thing photo ID is trying to address."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042 Twitter: @bbierschbach