Legislative leaders voted Thursday to hire a private attorney to help fend off a challenge to a proposed photo ID constitutional amendment.
A panel made up of top legislative leaders, the Legislative Coordinating Commission, approved the decision by a mixed voice vote. It appeared that Republican leaders, who support the proposed changes in election laws, supported the measure, while DFLers, who generally oppose photo ID and related changes, opposed hiring an attorney.
The resolution calls for the Legislative Coordinating Commission to hire the Winthrop and Weinstine firm, at a cost estimated at $18,000. The firm is to intervene on behalf of the Legislature in a lawsuit challenging the ballot language of a proposed Photo ID constitutional amendment, which is scheduled to be submitted to voters in November.
The lawsuit was filed before the Minnesota Supreme Court by the League of Women Voters Minnesota, Common Cause, Jewish Community Action and a number of individuals. It alleges that the language of the question voters will see on the ballot is misleading and erroneous, in that it does not accurately and completely describe the amendment that would be inserted into the state Constitution.
The ballot question, to which voters vote "yes" or "no," is different from the underlying amendment that is inserted into the constitution. The question before the court is whether the question fairly depicts the changes the amendment will make.
The suit was filed against Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who will be represented by the Office of the Attorney General. Ritchie, a DFLer, has been a prominent foe of the amendment, and Republican legislators have expressed concerns about whether he will vigorously defend the court challenge.
House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, legislators asked the Attorney General if state lawyers could also represent the Legislature in the matter, and were told they should consider hiring outside counsel to defend their prerogative to write ballot questions.
"Whether it's us in the majority, whether it's the Democrats in the majority, the legislature's authority does have to be affirmed," Zellers said.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, argued that the expenditure is unneeded because the state's interests are already being represented by state-paid lawyers.
"I don't think it makes sense for the Legislature to actually intervene for the first time and spend taxpayer dollars to defend this, when somebody else is already going to be doing that same work," Thissen said.
The funds will come from the Legislative Coordinating Commission's budget. A staffer said it will be paid from salary savings due to a hiring freeze.
The House and Senate approved the election changes on party-line votes, with only Republicans supporting it.
In addition to requiring voters to show a government-issued photo ID, the amendment would create a new system of two-step, provisional balloting and would stiffen registration requirements for some voters. The question before the court is whether the ballot question fairly describes all these changes.
The ballot question to be submitted to 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?"