Voter Restriction: More Than Meets The Eye

Why I’m voting NO on the proposed amendment

by Amy Bergquist

The proposed voter restriction amendment has been in the news a lot lately and I’ve been hearing people say things like, “What’s the big deal with requiring an ID to vote? Heck, I need an ID to get into a bar or go to the doctor.” When I hear those questions, I can’t help but think about the unintended consequences the amendment would have for some of my neighbors.

Before starting law school at the University of Minnesota in 2004, I moved to downtown Minneapolis. Orientation leaders encouraged incoming students to fill out voter registration cards so we could vote in the fall elections. As most Minnesotans know, registration is a simple process. But one of the lessons I learned outside the classroom that year is that voter registration is far from simple for homeless citizens. The proposed amendment to the Minnesota Constitution would, in effect, disenfranchise many members of this vulnerable group.

Fire Station No. 1 and People Serving People

When I received my registration confirmation card in the mail, I learned that my new polling center would be Fire Station No. 1 at the corner of Portland Avenue and Third Street. Just across the street is the ten-story building that houses People Serving People (PSP), the largest family-focused temporary and emergency shelter for homeless Minnesotans. My house district, 59B, includes many other homeless shelters as well: Harbor Light Center; Mary’s Place; YouthLink; and Families Moving Forward. It’s no surprise, then, that 59B has the dubious distinction of leading the state with an estimated 6,800 registered voters who lack current or valid photo identification—outpacing the next-highest district by nearly 3,000 voters. Approximately 84,000 Minnesotans do not have a state-issued ID, and 131,000 have an ID that does not show their current address.

On Election Day in 2004, and again in 2008, I took time off to help some PSP residents go through the Election Day voter registration process. You don’t need a permanent address in order to vote in Minnesota.  Current law allows a voter to register with a non-current identification card and a current utility bill, but that provision that doesn’t help people who live in shelters and don’t pay utilities. Minnesota Statute 201.061 subdivision 3(a)(4) allows shelter employees to vouch for residents and also authorizes registered voters like me to vouch for voters who live in my precinct.

When the Minnesota Legislature decided to place the voter restriction amendment on the ballot this November, I thought back to my experiences vouching for my homeless neighbors. It’s not easy for homeless citizens to exercise their right to vote, but the proposed amendment would erect further obstacles to their participation in the political process by requiring “[a]ll voters voting in person [to] present valid government-issued photographic identification before receiving a ballot.” This may seem like a simple, straightforward requirement. Not so for Minnesota’s homeless citizens.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned while vouching for my homeless neighbors:

(1) Homeless citizens are committed to the democratic process.

I’ve been impressed by the strong commitment PSP residents have to civic participation. They were excited to vote and took their civic duty seriously. Many brought along their children, who were able to cast their own Kids Voting ballots. Kids Voting observes that “[t]his simple act takes the mystery out of the voting process and instills a sense of pride, accomplishment and responsibility which will stay with the student into adulthood.” These homeless families came out of the polling station beaming with pride, glad to add their voices to our democratic system.

I was equally impressed by PSP residents who were unable to vote. One family had moved to Minnesota just one week before the election and understood they weren’t yet eligible to vote. Another PSP resident told me he was eager to vote but couldn’t because he was still “on paper”—meaning his civil rights had not yet been restored. There was no hint of any desire to cheat the system or commit “voter fraud”; these citizens frankly accepted that they would have to wait for the next election to cast their vote.

James, a resident at Our Saviour’s Housing shelter in Minneapolis, described why he votes.

Listen to James discuss why he values his right to vote:

(2) For homeless citizens, “free” government-issued identification isn’t a realistic substitute for same-day voter registration.

The average length of a family’s stay at PSP is 37 days. So PSP’s residents don’t typically have time to obtain driver’s licenses or other identification to reflect their shelter address. The proposed amendment would require the state to “issue photographic identification at no charge to an eligible voter who does not have” a “valid government-issued” ID, but it’s not clear how quickly such IDs could be provided.

Election Day Registration: Proofs of Residence

“[T]he term ‘free’ conceals the true cost of the photographic identification requirement,” Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson observed in his dissent last month. “The cost of obtaining the required supporting documentation, especially for elderly and vulnerable populations, can be substantial.” At the Minneapolis Homeless Connect event this May, one third of attendees sought help obtaining IDs or birth certificates.

Colleen O’Connor Toberman, Volunteer Coordinator at Our Saviour’s Housing, explains the burdens homeless people face in obtaining a “valid government-issued” ID:

Our shelter residents don’t have a permanent address. They may not currently drive, travel, work, go to bars, or do any of those other ID-requiring things most of us take for granted. In fact, one of the first things many shelter residents request from our staff is help acquiring an ID. That can be a lengthy process because their supporting documents have been lost or stolen during countless moves. . . .

Once lost, replacing these documents is not easy [or] cheap. The amendment makes the photo ID itself free, but not the supporting papers. A Minnesota birth certificate costs $26. Obtaining documents such as this (when that’s even possible) or the photo card requires a trip to the county government center. That necessitates transportation and time off from a job that probably doesn’t offer paid time off. . . .

Even if a homeless individual acquires proper identification, what address to put on it? Most shelters and housing programs limit stays. Some offer just one night at a time, making it impossible to count on residing in the same place [on Election Day] when applying for an ID.

(3) The voter restriction amendment would place homeless citizens at an unfair disadvantage in exercising their fundamental right to vote.

Voting is a human right, not a privilege. We shouldn’t blame parents facing the stress of being homeless, living in a shelter, raising kids, keeping a job, and seeking long-term housing for not having the time or resources to jump through myriad hoops in a race to get an ID before Election Day. PSP residents are far from idle; I’m exhausted just reading about this “typical day” at the shelter. But if the amendment passes, we’ll send a message to homeless citizens: If you want to participate in the democratic process, you must prioritize plowing through bureaucratic paperwork to get a soon-to-be obsolete ID over far more pressing tasks that have tangible, long-term, socially beneficial consequences—like finding permanent shelter and obtaining steady employment.

On November 6, I’ll be back at PSP. I’ll continue my practice of not talking politics, but I’ll be silently hoping this won’t be the last time I’ll have the opportunity help some of my homeless neighbors exercise their right to vote.

Have you talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about how the proposed voter restriction amendment would restrict voting rights? The Advocates for Human Rights recognizes that voting is a fundamental human right and opposes the proposed amendment. Visit Our Vote, Our Future for more information.

House District 59B DFL Primary Election Recount, Aug. 23, 2012

All photos by the author.

Amy Bergquist is the International Justice Program Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights.

Sex trafficking in Minnesota: why one case matters

by Mary O’Brien

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to observe portions of what I believe was the first sex trafficking case to go to trial in Hennepin County. Although the law has been in existence for some time, this case was the first time members of the general public–the jury–were asked to recognize sex trafficking as a crime and find the perpetrator culpable for this human rights violation.

Sex trafficking and prostitution are part of the same continuum of criminal activity– that is, the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Sex trafficking is a grave human rights violation and a violent crime that has devastating consequences for its victims.

Legal definitions of sex trafficking vary, but international, federal and state law all reflect the idea that sex trafficking involves individuals profiting from the commercial sexual exploitation of others. Under Minnesota law, sex trafficking does not require transportation across any border; it can involve United States citizens; and, unlike federal law, it does not require proof that the adult victim was lured into trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion. Under Minnesota law, a victim may be trafficked “by any means.”  This means that in Minnesota sex trafficking is essentially prostitution that is controlled by a pimp or trafficker.

The Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights has been working to combat this human rights violation in Minnesota for years. In 2008 we published the Sex Trafficking Needs Assessment for the State of Minnesota which examined the government response to sex trafficking at the local, state, tribal, and federal levels. The report also identified facilities and services available to trafficking victims in Minnesota and assessed their effectiveness. Finally, the report made recommendations for coordinating services to better meet the needs of sex trafficking victims statewide.

Since the publication of the report, we have reached more than 2,000 individuals through more than 60 presentations and trainings throughout the state, including the first-ever prosecutor training. This week, Staff Attorney Beatríz Menanteau will be training hotel employees about sex trafficking and how they can help identify victims. Additionally, we’ve worked with the legislative committee of the statewide Human Trafficking Task Force. In 2009 we drafted amendments to the state law that increased penalties for traffickers and “johns.” Those amendments were signed into law and were the basis for some of the charges in the trial that I witnessed.

Most recently, we have been leading the Safe Harbor Initiative to change Minnesota law and clarify the state’s obligation to provide services and assistance to children who are sexually exploited, rather than to prosecute them criminally when they are purchased for sexual services. The Safe Harbor legislation was signed into law in July 2011 and will be fully implemented by 2014.

The Advocates, with our partners and the statewide Human Trafficking Task Force, continues to work to improve our law, government response to sex trafficking, and community awareness of sex trafficking in Minnesota. As a result of this work, Minnesota is a national leader among the states in combating sex trafficking. Polaris Project, a national organization, just released its Annual State Ratings that evaluate the laws and steps taken by each state to combat human trafficking.  Minnesota has been among the top ranking states for several years and was one of the first states to pass Safe Harbor legislation. Minnesota has, and continues to be, a leader on this issue.

Why does this one case matter?

This case is an important milestone in recognizing sex trafficking as a violation of human rights in Minnesota. While we have had many charges and convictions under the law, and we have a strong task force with committed advocates and legal professionals; a jury trial is a litmus test for how our community regards sex trafficking.  Does the general public recognize sex trafficking, as defined under our law, as a crime, and are they ready to prioritize victim safety and hold the perpetrators accountable?

I am happy to report that the jury found the defendant guilty on all charges — including two counts of sex trafficking and evidence of bodily harm to the victim. On August 20, 2012, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

And while this one case does not mark the end of sex trafficking in Minnesota — we still have a long way to go –- this jury sent a strong message to me and all of Minnesota that we are ready. We are ready to change our perception of prostituted women; we are ready to hold the perpetrators accountable; and we are ready to recognize this grave human rights violation.

For more information about sex trafficking, please visit

Mary O’Brien is a Program Associate with the Women’s Human Rights Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

Speak Up for Tolerance


by Robin Phillips

When I heard the news on Sunday about the terrorist attack at the SikhTemple in Wisconsin, I felt ill. My heart aches for the Sikh community whose members can no longer feel safe in their temples–spiritual places that should be a sanctuary from the ignorance, prejudice, and hate of the groups like those to which the terrorist belonged. The attack has fostered fear in other communities of immigrants or minority religions around the country. This one person—a part of a tiny but loud group of haters in this country—has damaged our shared sense of security.

Although a great majority of Americans may feel like I do, we must remember that we are not helpless in the face of this senseless act of terrorism. As we mourn the victims, we stand in solidarity with the Sikh community and with the targets of religious bigotry everywhere.

We recognize that this violence is not only an offense against Sikhs, it is an assault on the core values of this country. Just like the first immigrants, new waves of immigrants have come expecting to freely practice their own religions. Religious freedom is a core principle of the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An attack at a place of worship is an attack on this fundamental freedom.

What can we do to stop these attacks—to stop the violence? We will never know all that motivated the killer, but what we do know so far suggests that the attacker was a belligerent espouser of hate—someone who felt entitled and empowered by his hateful words and actions. In The Advocates for Human Rights’ own work to educate the public about the realities of immigration and to dispel the negative myths that create hostility in our communities, we have seen how anti-immigrant propaganda has fueled known hate groups. For years we have seen immigrants blamed for every possible problem in our society. Politicians use scare tactics about people who look and talk differently from “Americans” to try to gain political advantage. States have passed laws with the express purpose of creating hostile communities where immigrants do not feel welcome.

If public policy purposefully creates hostile communities, should we be surprised by the type of domestic terrorism we saw at the Sikh temple? We need to work together to counter the flood of hateful speech from individuals, the media, institutions, and policy makers with language of tolerance, mutual respect, and responsibility to promote and protect the human rights of every person in our country.

I know that the programs like our One Voice Minnesota Anti-Bias Initiative and our human rights education work here at The Advocates are one way to do this. We all have opportunities to speak up for what is right every day. If we take these opportunities, together, we can be much louder than the voices of hate.

Robin Phillips is the Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

Photo Essay: Cartooning for Peace

Cartoon by Kianoush

by Jennifer Prestholdt

In May, I was in Geneva to participate in the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review of Morocco and India.  I went for a run one day along Quai Wilson on Lake Geneva and discovered an exhibition of political cartoons. The exhibition was sponsored by Cartooning for Peace/Dessins pour la paix, an initiative conceived of by French political cartoonist Plantu and launched at the United Nations in 2006.  The goal of Cartooning for Peace is to promote better understanding and mutual respect between people of different faiths and cultures.  Cartooning for Peace also works to promote freedom of expression and to protect the rights of cartoonists.

Cartooning for Peace and the City of Geneva created the new International Prize for Editorial Cartoons to honor cartoonists for their talent, outstanding contribution and commitment to the values of tolerance, freedom and peace. On May 3, 2012  – the World Day of Press Freedom – the prize was awarded for the first time to four Iranian political cartoonists.

Cartoon by Mana Neyestani
Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

The exhibition Dessins Pour La Paix  2012 displayed the work of the award-winning Iranian artists Mana Neyestani, Kianoush,  Firoozeh Mozaffari and Hassan Karimzade.

In addition, the exhibition included dozens of political cartoons by cartoonists around the world on the themes of freedom of expression, the Arab spring and the rights of women.

The exhibition in Geneva ran from May 3 to June 3, 2012.  The full catalogue of the cartons featured in the exhibit is now available online.

Take a stroll with me along Quai Wilson and witness the power of the cartooning for peace!




Photo credits to International Justice Program staff attorney Amy Bergquist.