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Voter ID law would mean changes, added costs for Otter Tail County

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Minnesota's proposed Voter ID law could have some unsavory costs and consequences for Otter Tail County.

If passed by voters in November, this state constitutional amendment will require people to show a government-issued photo ID before their vote will be counted.

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The law would take effect July 1, 2013.

But County Auditor Wayne Stein said, "supporting legislation telling us how this would be implemented is currently missing." And without that, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the full effects of the law.

While Stein said there are too many unknowns to put a reliable price tag on it for Otter Tail County at this time, other similar-sized counties have reported that implementing Voter ID would cost them $265,000-$600,000.

In a survey of the Minnesota Association of County Officers, it was found that small counties would incur estimated costs ranging from $55,000-$120,000 (such as Pennington County, which has 7,200 voters). That number jumps to $435,000-$965,000 for medium-sized counties (such as Stearns County, with 85,000 voters). Otter Tail County falls in the middle of these, with about 33,000 voters.

Costs for counties that have mail ballot precincts are significantly higher; Otter Tail does not have these.

Stein said those extra dollars would be used for additional administrative and processing costs for increased provisional balloting, as well as technology upgrades at polling locations. Funds would also be needed to train election judges in on the new system, and pay for more staff or personnel hours at the polls.

It's possible that every polling location (the county has 75 of them) would need to be outfitted with a computer and Internet access in order to accommodate the new voting system, said Stein. Many of these locations, especially those in smaller, more rural areas, currently have no computer at all.

Another option could be the use of electronic poll books, which Stein said cost $1,700-$4,000 each. The range in cost depends on whether standard electronic poll books can be used or if a real-time connection to the statewide voter registration system is needed.

"We have 91 precincts in Otter Tail County," he said, "so we create 91 rosters and would need a poll book for each of those."

Though most of the financial responsibility for the Voter ID law would be on state and local governments, it's possible individual voters could end up paying some costs out of pocket.

Under the law, the state will provide photo IDs to people who don't already have one; but it's not clear whether the state would also pay for any other documentation needed to get a photo ID, such as a birth certificate.

Also, voters without a valid ID at the polls may have to travel to their county seat to provide one later, if they want their vote to count.

Another major concern of the amendment is that it would almost certainly eliminate same-day voter registration.

"That might mean people registering on election day would have to vote by provisional ballot," said Stein. "In 2008, 5,300 people registered to vote on election day, out of about 32,800 total. That's one thing that, as a population, could really be impacted, assuming there isn't some legislation added that grants some flexibility to the language actually on the ballot."

Other common concerns regard absentee voting (how does a person provide valid ID with a mailed-in ballot?), and the change in language from "government approved" to "government issued" ID, which could mean some college IDs and other forms of ID would no longer be valid at the polls.

The amendment would provide identity verification, said Stein, and that's a main goal of the law's proponents. But it wouldn't necessarily provide voter eligibility verification - another main goal.

In the past in Otter Tail County, Stein said, there were concerns about convicted felons voting before they were eligible, "but the system has since been enhanced and improved."

Showing a photo ID at the polls wouldn't address this issue, Stein said, since "a driver's license won't tell people who's a felon and who's not."

Other kinds of voter fraud are nearly nonexistent in this area.

"We don't have, in Otter Tail County, issues dealing with voter fraud," said Stein. "Over the years, I can recall one instance where one person voted in Otter Tail County and then in another county on the same day."

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