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Minnesota Court Upholds Ballot Initiative Proposing Voter ID Law

Minnesota’s highest court upheld the proposed ballot initiative that AARP argued would impede the right to vote for older people, those isolated geographically or by disability, and low-income people. In the election, however, the voters rejected the proposed amendment.  


A November 2012 voting ballot initiative in Minnesota proposed to require photo IDs at polling places while promising “free” photo ID to all eligible voters who do not already have other specified IDs. The League of Women Voters Minnesota challenged the ballot initiative on several grounds, and AARP filed a supporting friend-of-the-court brief. The league argued that language to be presented to voters suggests any photo ID will be acceptable; in fact, only “government-issued” photo identification would be accepted. Also, it was unclear whether only currently valid photo identification would be required. The league further challenged language regarding ID verification on Election Day as misleading as it gives voters no notice that the current state system of “same-day registration” and possibly even absentee voting would have to be eliminated.

AARP asserted that the promise of “free” voter identification is misleading since those seeking ID often incur substantial costs (e.g., voters born out of state seeking birth certificates). That is, voters may still incur costs obtaining a “free” identification even if the state itself does not charge for the actual ID.

AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief citing Minnesota law and precedent requiring clarity and accuracy in ballot initiative language. Moreover, the brief argued, this is a unique and significant event: A constitutional vote on a major rewrite of state voting law, to be decided not by the legislature but by popular vote.

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the ballot initiative. While noting that the referendum could have been more artfully drafted, the court ruled that any defects in language were not fatal. The ruling was met with a particularly stinging dissent that opened with the definition of “bait and switch” and concluded that “This is not a case in which the words of the ballot question was simply not phrased in the best or fairest terms …This is a case in which the words of the ballot question were phrased to actively deceive and mislead.” Another dissent parsed the Minnesota constitution and declared “woefully deficient” the process employed by the court majority to conclude that the state legislature was entitled to deference in their drafting of the referendum. The dissent also criticized the key rationale for the ballot initiative — reducing in-person voter fraud — as inadequate. Finally, it charged that the entire process for bringing the ballot forward was flawed by political polarization

What’s at Stake

Voter photo ID laws provide particular difficulties for low-income people, people who are geographically isolated, people in nursing facilities, people with disabilities and older citizens. The requirement for government-issued identifications poses a burden for those who do not or cannot drive, who do not possess passports because they no longer (or never) traveled outside the U.S., and who cannot obtain certified copies of birth certificates. The need to travel to state offices to obtain a government-issued ID specifically for voting purposes also poses problems for the same populations, which may not have access to or funds for transportation to the few centers available for processing applications for photo ID.

Case Status

League of Women Voters v. Ritchie was decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

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