The right to use tribal identification as legal voter ID in the state was a hard won battle for Minnesota’s Native population. In 2004 about 200 tribal members using tribal identification were turned away from the polls in Minnesota, both on and off reservations, according to Audrey Thayer of the White Earth Nation and Racial Justice Coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Minnesota.
Mary Kiffmeyer, then Secretary of State, ruled that tribal ID was not a form of legal identification for voting purposes. In 2004, the National Congress of American Indians and the ACLU along with several individual Native plaintiffs filed a successful federal lawsuit against Kiffmeyer and the State of Minnesota allowing the use of tribal IDs as valid forms of legal identity.
Since her 2008 election to the Minnesota House of Representatives, Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) sponsored two state voter ID bills that were subsequently vetoed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. She and co-sponsor State Senator Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson) authored a bill that successfully placed the voter ID question on the 2012 ballot as a state constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments don’t require the governor’s approval in order to go before the state’s voters.
The proposed amendment that will be submitted to Minnesota voters 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?”
Section one of the amendment describes acceptable identification as “valid government issued photographic identification” and does not specifically list, unlike other state voter ID laws, acceptable forms of identification.
Although Kiffmeyer’s legislative assistant, Kileen Lindgren, assured Indian Country Today Media Network that tribal ID would be considered legal under the new law, she was unable to provide any written documentation supporting this claim. Authorities at the Tennessee state board of elections informed ICTMN that tribal identification would not be an acceptable document for voting in that state.
Tennessee’s current voter ID law is similar to the one proposed in Minnesota. It states that voters present “one form of identification that bears the name and photograph of the voter.” The law goes on to list acceptable forms of ID as those issued by state or federal governments.
In August, the ACLU lost their argument that the Minnesota amendment was misleading and unclear. They had filed a petition with the Minnesota Supreme Court on behalf of the League of Women Voters Minnesota, Jewish Community Action and Common Cause Minnesota as well as five individual plaintiffs. The court upheld the amendment as written.
“The ACLU is disappointed that the court allowed a false and misleading amendment to stay on the ballot, “said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU Minnesota.
Many Native people in Minnesota are concerned that the vague wording of the amendment may lead to tribal IDs once again being rejected as legal identification for voting. “There is no mention of tribal IDs being part of the list of acceptable forms of identification in this amendment,” noted Sally Fineday, of the Leech Lake Band of Minnesota Ojibwe. Fineday was former executive director of the Native Vote Alliance of Minnesota.
“The Minnesota State Legislature wasn’t telling voters the truth about its proposed photo ID requirement for voting, and they have a right to know,” said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “Not only is this part of a wave of laws that have already had a severe impact on the right to vote nationwide, but this particular amendment effectively spells the end of Election Day registration, which significantly increases turnout.”
According to the Native Vote 2004 National Report, voters registered on Election Day in Minnesota more than doubled during the 2004 elections in Beltrami County, home to the Red Lake Reservation.
Overall, voter turnout on the White Earth, Red Lake, Bois Forte, Fond du Lac and Leech Lake reservations saw an approximately 10 percent increase over the 2000 election. Fineday speculated that this increase in the Native vote might underlie the interest by Republicans in creating more restrictive voter ID laws. Thayer agreed. “Traditionally people of color, students, the elderly vote Democratic.
This is simply a Republican ploy to disenfranchise a population of people who might vote against them,” she said. Both Thayer and Fineday noted that driving to the county seat to secure a state ID, over an hour trip for many Indian people in northern Minnesota, would be prohibitive. “Many of our people don’t have access to a car. When you are focusing on feeding your family and staying alive day to day, registering to vote just isn’t very high on your list of priorities,” observed Fineday.