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The Minnesota Supreme Court gave the Republican-controlled Legislature a pair of important election-year victories on Monday, ruling that proposed constitutional amendments on photo ID and same-sex marriage will go to voters in words chosen by their supporters in the Legislature.
In a pair of 4-2 decisions, the court deferred to the Legislature in selecting the bold-face titles and the ballot question voters will see this November. It means the both issues will remain on the ballot and be presented to voters the way legislators wanted -- not in the manner favored by DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.
"It's a real victory for the constitution, separation of powers and upholding the authority of the Legislature," said Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, author of the photo ID amendment.
"Today we are Florida," responded Chuck Samuelson of the ACLU of Minnesota, which worked on the ID challenge, referring to the 2000 presidential battle that was decided by the U.S. Supreme court. "This was a political decision by a political court."
The decision means a proposed amendment titled "Photo Identification Required for Voting" will appear on the ballot, with the ballot question asking voters if they want to amend the state constitution "to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters. ..."
Additionally, the amendment against gay marriage will be titled "Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman." The ballot question, which was not challenged in the cases, will ask voters if the constitution should be amended so that "only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota."
Ritchie, who testified against photo ID and who had provided alternate titles for both measures, said he accepted the high court's decision and urged voters to fully familiarize themselves with text of the amendments, which will not appear on the ballot.
Words, not merits
The cases did not concern the merits of the voting-law changes or marriage amendment -- just the way the measures will appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
In the photo ID lawsuit, filed by the League of Women Voters Minnesota and others, the League said the ID amendment does much more than voters are told, requiring a "government-issued" ID, setting up two-step provisional voting, and changing same-day registration and eligibility standards. The League wanted the issue stricken from the ballot.
But the court majority said the separation of powers among the branches of government means giving "a high degree to deference to the Legislature" in deciding what is an appropriate wording of ballot questions.
"We acknowledge that the ballot question, as framed by the Legislature, does not use the same words used in the amendment itself, nor does it list all of the proposed effects ..." the court ruled. "These failures may be criticized, and it may indeed have been wiser for the Legislature to include the entire amendment on the ballot." But the court said it has a "limited role" in such areas.
Some justices disagree
In a stinging dissent, Justice Alan Page called the ballot question "a classic case of bait and switch," writing that "It is ironic, if not Orwellian, that in the name of 'protecting' the voter and preventing unspecified voting 'fraud,' the Legislature has resorted to a ballot question that deliberately deceives and misleads the very voters it claims must be protected."
In the title cases, the majority also deferred to the Legislature's authority, saying when the Legislature writes a title, that is what must appear on the ballot. "We hold that the Secretary of state erred and exceeded his authority" in providing different titles, the majority ruled.
The majority was formed by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea and Justices G. Barry Anderson, David Stras and Christopher Dietzen, all appointees of former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Page joined the court through election and the other dissenter, Justice Paul Anderson, was appointed by former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson.
The decisions pleased amendment supporters and worried opponents.
"Now it's up to voters to determine the future of election integrity," said Kiffmeyer, the ID amendment sponsor.
Said Stacy Doepner-Hove, president of the League of Women Voters Minnesota, in a statement:
"The decision means that we will need to work harder than ever, not just to make sure that voters get to the polls and know what is on their ballot, but also to understand what is not on their ballot,"
Marriage amendment sponsor Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the title that Richie picked for the amendment -- "Limiting the Status of Marriage to Opposite Sex Couples" -- would have skewed voters opinions' against the amendment. He said the title the Legislature settled upon -- "Recognition of marriage solely between one man and one woman" -- is both accurate and neutral.
Dan McGrath of the Minnesota Majority, which supports the photo ID amendment, said the title Ritchie chose was "deliberately confusing" and "absolutely" would have suppressed the vote for it. Ritchie's proposed title was: "Changes to in-person & absentee voting & voter registration; provisional ballots."
Laura Fredrick Wang of the League of Women Voters said that even in defeat, the court case helped illustrate the complexity of the photo ID issue. "At least we got the conversation started," she said.
Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report. Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042