Election Day is usually cold in Minnesota, much like most other late-fall days in the state. But while foul weather can keep people away from the polls in other places, it's just par for the electoral course in the state with the highest voter turnout in presidential elections. It also usually tops the list in non-presidential years. Experts chalk Minnesotans' civic success up to Election Day Registration, or EDR.
You know that voter-registration form you fill out before your first election or whenever you move? Well, if you are a resident of Minnesota and forget to send that in, you can still vote. Just show up at your polling place on Election Day. (OK, there is a bit more to it than that, but we'll get to that later.)
In 2004, 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in the U.S., according to the United States Election Project. The numbers are even lower for eligible voters between 18 and 24: Only 47 percent voted, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, a nonpartisan think tank better known as CIRCLE.
But in Minnesota, those numbers are much higher: 72 percent for the general population and 69 percent for young Minnesotans, according to the above sources. Those are numbers that can really change the outcome of an election.
"In the state of Minnesota, the one election that was clearly changed by EDR was the election of Independent Party candidate [and] former wrestler Jesse Ventura as our governor," said Mark Ritchie, Minnesota's secretary of state. "He was a third-party candidate in a race that was very close, and the EDR of young people was the difference it took for him to win."
And it is young people, who tend to move around a lot, along with lower-income people, active-duty troops and older citizens who benefit the most from EDR, according to Ritchie. Here's how it works:
Step 1: Show up to your polling place.
Step 2: Show a valid state ID or a tribal ID card with your current license or, if you've moved, your ID and a utility bill with your current address. (Passports and military ID cards also work with utility bills.)
Step 3: Fill out a registration form.
Step 4: Vote!
Even if you don't have a utility bill, you still have another shot at voting: Citizens can vouch for each other. That means you can hang out at your polling place until someone you know comes in to vote. That's what Catherine Reid, a 20-year-old student at the University of Minnesota, did in 2006.
"I saw a girl from campus who was willing to vouch for me. All we had to do was sign some papers that said I lived across the street, and then I was able to vote," she said.
If that sounds shocking to you, you obviously don't live in Minnesota.
"To somebody who could never accept that a neighbor could vouch for a neighbor? I am sorry for that," Ritchie said. "But it is relevant to the goal, which is having a voting system that does not exclude particularly young people, who have the greatest stake in the future, or perhaps soldiers who are giving their lives to have this democracy, or often it is the senior citizens who are the ones discriminated against by some of these requirements."
Cases of voter fraud are rare, but there is one case currently being prosecuted in Minnesota involving two college students. The penalty for voter fraud is a one-year prison term and a felony record that will stay with you for life.
"It's actually a more secure system [than other states have]," Ritchie said. "In most places, registrations are done through the mail. Somebody fills out a form and signs an oath saying, 'I am who I say I am.' With EDR, the person is standing in front of you and they have some form of ID."
Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Maine also have Election Day Registration, with Iowa set to become the eighth EDR state on Election Day 2008. So with all that EDR competition, how does Minnesota still stay on top of the voter-turnout game?
"I think there's just a great political culture here in Minnesota. People are very civic-minded and engaged in their communities, and they really like to have a say in what goes on around them," said Ryan Kennedy, an 18-year-old student at the University of Minnesota. "Minnesota is just that sweet."