Minnesota Voters Raise Their Diverse Voices for Voting Rights

Minnesota's Communities of color are changing the narrative about the state's voter ID amendment.

By Aura Bogado Oct 02, 2012

When Minnesota voters head to the polls this November, they’ll decide on whether to amend their state’s constitution to "require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote," and to mandate the state issue free ID to eligible voters beginning in July of 2013.

As we reported this summer, the amendment’s language is plagued with problems. So much so, that lawyers thought they could challenge the amendment from appearing on the ballot. But they lost in the state’s Supreme Court.

What voters won’t necessarily know when they vote on the measure is that only government-issued ID will be acceptable–not student IDs. And while the amendment requires the state to issue "free identification," it’s taxpayers who will be paying, as well as individuals who may need to travel as far as 100 miles to issuing agency, only after they’ve obtained a $26 birth certificate.

Outside of the legal arena, community groups have been doing their share of work to defeat the amendment–and are now using social media to spread their message. Our community journalist Lolla Mohammed Nur considers one campaign for, by, and about the communities that will face exclusion if the voter ID amendment is passed on Election Day.

Communities of Color Use Storytelling to Oppose Minnesota’s Voter ID Amendment
Dispatch by Lolla Mohammed Nur

Minnesota-based Organizing Apprenticeship Project (OAP) launched its "Voices for Voting Rights" video series, a campaign that uses narratives and storytelling to engage communities of color in opposition to the Voter ID amendment. Jointly produced by Line Break Media, the series of five videos target five Minnesota communities: Latino, Somali, African American, Native American, and Hmong.

The videos are part of the OAP’s ongoing training and policy research aimed to reframe the discourse around Voter ID.

"What was important to us was to be able to […] have each video both come from and speak to each community," said Vina Kay, OAP Director of Research and Policy. "We want it to belong to the community. We wanted the people to be comfortable in how they were communicating their story."

The first video, released September 24, features Latino community members, including a religious leader and community organizers. "Voter ID would be one more systematic blow," says Deacon Carl Valdez of Incarnation Catholic Church/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús. "The average citizen does not know that many people do not have the same conveniences, especially those who are poor, those of a different race, those who do not have the same opportunities that many people have."

OAP released the second video days after, featuring Somali community leaders and activists explaining how the Voter ID amendment will affect them. "I know that right [to participate in elections] doesn’t come easy. It comes at a lot of peoples’ sacrifice so that I have that right," says Somali community leader Sadik Warfa. "Rather than restricting and putting out the barrier of voter ID, it is very important that we make sure more people participate in our democracy."

The third video, for the Hmong community, launched this Monday. Videos for and about African American and Native American communities are scheduled to roll out in the next two weeks.

Each video has a unique story to tell. For example, Native American community members reflect on the tension between the imposition of US citizenship on their communities, and the responsibility to participate in the political process. The Latino video features images from the 2005 Twin Cities March for Dignity, a rally for immigration reform. Somali interviewees focus on how being a mobile community will affect their ease of attaining voter identification cards.

Despite the unique stories, common themes tie the series together: historic struggle, systemic exclusion, and access to power and political participation.

Interviewees speak in their native languages as well as in English in three of the videos, none of which carry English language subtitles–a strategic decision on the OAP’s part to capture each community’s unique story and provide accessibility for various members of each community.

These decisions came out of months of consultation between the OAP and a strategy table consisting of multi-racial and multi-ethnic panel members. Kay believes this intentionality allowed community members to feel comfortable enough to claim each respective video as their own.

"What I thought interesting was how willing and interested people were in participating; they had a lot to say whether they were young people or youth who had never voted before," said Kay. "Or elders from immigrant communities, or African American communities who were part of the Civil Rights Movement and experienced that struggle firsthand.

Erick Boustead, co-founder and co-director of Line Break Media with Nolan Morice, said the power of the "Voices for Voting Rights" video series lies in its ability to counter the dominant story.

"The narrative right now is that [the Voter ID amendment] will affect seniors, students, and veterans," he said. He cautioned that the dominant story around voter fraud could be destructive. "The effects on communities of color – even with the work that’s happening on Voter ID – isn’t really part of the narrative."

Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Somali Action Alliance, who is seen in the video for the Somali community, said using media to educate communities of color about Voter ID is crucial because there is a lot of confusion about the impact of the amendment. He has received positive feedback since the video launched.

"Many people don’t exactly know until you educate them how it works. Many say, ‘We have an ID so why should we care?’" Shafi said. "But we [Somalis] are a mobile community. We move from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city. We don’t own property. So [the amendment] affects us directly."

The OAP is collaborating with local nonprofits and ethnic media outlets to disseminate the video series through social and local media. Main targets include ethnic radio stations, newspapers and TV channels within each community. The OAP will eventually contact mainstream media outlets, but they are not a priority, said Hana Worku, an OAP organizer, research associate and Wellstone Organizing Fellow.

"That’s what makes our approach unique," she said. "This amendment impacts everyone in some way; it has broad sweeping effects […]. But our frame was really concerned with communities of color and low income folks."

The challenge for organizations like the OAP has been focusing on key issues with an amendment that could have such broad-sweeping effects.  

"We decided we can’t organize the entire (voter ID opposition) campaign; we’re not equipped for that," explained Kay. "But we can reach out to communities who have a significant voice, who are voters and understand what this means to them, particularly through empowering multicultural and multiracial communities."

Kay is enthusiastic the amendment may be defeated, with recent poll numbers showing that 52 percent of voters support the amendment, which is down from 80 percent back in May. The OAP plans on screening the "Voices for Voting Rights" series, as well as a culmination video for general audiences, at a community celebration October 11, at Parkway Theatre in South Minneapolis. 

The Organizing Apprenticeship Project and Line Break Media will be at this year’s Facing Race conference in Baltimore.