Polling place photo ID activists launch St. Paul petition drive


The bitter fallout has spread wider in the aftermath of Norm Coleman's recount loss to Al Franken in last year's U.S. Senate race: A petition drive now underway in St. Paul, backed by Republican activists, could lead to a charter amendment there requiring voters in city elections to show a valid photo ID before they get to cast ballots on Election Day.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance is spearheading the petition drive, and a similar effort in Duluth. Andy Cilek, the group's co-founder, says the change is necessary to combat voter fraud and restore public confidence in elections. If successful, he plans to use the results to put pressure on the Legislature to pass a similar law. Previous attempts to pass photo ID laws at the state level have gone nowhere.

Cilek's critics say he's is offering a solution in search of a problem, and likely trying to intimidate voters along the way. They point out that Minnesota residents already must furnish proof of identity when they register to vote, either with a drivers license, a Social Security number, or other documentation, or with someone's sworn oath. On Election Day, voters sign a polling place roster that confirms their eligibility to vote, as well as their understanding of the penalties if they are providing false information.

Cilek's petition would require that voters bring a photo ID with them on Election Day as well. Here's the charter amendment Cilek wants to see:

In all St. Paul elections for the offices of Mayor and City Council, and special elections held under the City Charter, voters voting in person must present a valid photo ID card prior to casting their ballot.

Such Photo ID must be one of the following; a current Minnesota Driver License, State ID, an ID card issued by the U. S. Government, or a Tribal Government, all with a valid St. Paul voting residence. If a citizen cannot afford a photo ID, The City shall provide the means for the voter to obtain a Minnesota ID at no cost.

Cileks, a self-described right-wing activist who says he convinced -- despite any hard evidence -- that dead people voted in the last election, and that ACORN has sullied the integrity of voter rolls, wants to know how could anyone oppose what he calls such a "reasonable measure."

Because it's not necessary, for one thing, says Ramsey Country Elections Manager Joe Mansky, whose district would have to implement the change Cilek's group is seeking.

In the 2008 general election cycle, there were more than 278,169 votes cast in St. Paul and the surrounding county, Mansky says. Of those, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office prosecuted 23 people for voter fraud. All 23 of those cases involved only convicted felons on parole, 10 of whom actually voted in violation of state laws -- apparently because they were not familiar with the law.

It's not a perfect record, Mansky says, but it's darned close. And none of the fraud allegations involved anyone trying to fake their identity.

To which Cilek replies, how would anyone know?

Hamline University law professor David Schultz, who has written extensively about the issue, says that Cilek's position isn't based in reality.

"Like the existence of the Loch Ness Monster and the idea that Elvis is alive, the notion of wide-spread voter fraud is founded on a myth," he says. "It's malarkey. It's just bunk." He also contends that photo ID requirements are thinly-veiled efforts to intimidate immigrants, people of color, the poor, and the powerless, and prevent them from voting. In an article for the William Mitchell Law Review, he said photo IDs would play the same role in deterring minorities from voting as lynch mobs did with blacks in the pre-Civil Rights era.

That's nonsense, Cilek says: "How does having to prove that you are who you say you are infringe on anyone's rights, especially if the ID will be provided free of charge to those who can't afford it? Photo ID's are required to board a plane, enter federal buildings, cash a check and even rent a Rug Doctor. Is renting a rug doctor more important than election integrity?"

"Reasonable people can disagree about election procedures, but to associate a perfectly legitimate reform effort with murderers is offensive and unacceptable," Cilek says. "That activists like Shultz would even raise the comparison shows him to be an unserious ideologue, and his opinions should be disregarded."

Cilek needs 7,100 signitures by July to place his charter amendment on the ballot in the 2010 election.