Lori Sturdevant: Send voter ID back to Legislature

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2012 - 10:17 PM

That's where laws are made and can readily be refined, unlike with the Constitution.

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"Send it back to the Legislature and make them get it right. Please vote no."

So sums up DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in the commercial he and the former governor formerly considered a Republican, Arne Carlson, made to oppose the constitutional amendment that would require voters to present a valid, government-issued photo ID card to receive a ballot.

After the governors' salvo of condemnation of an amendment that's been scoring majority support in the polls all year, "send it back" seems like an almost conciliatory endnote.

It implies a possibility that just maybe, perhaps, the identity and eligibility features of the state's election system could use a tuneup.

But the Legislature botched the job, the govs argue. The amendment complicates the exercise of citizenship's fundamental franchise for too many seniors and active-duty members of the military, they say. (It also raises unanswered questions for absentee voters; residents of battered women's, homeless and disaster aid shelters; the disabled; students, and the transient poor.) It will cost too much. And it will mess up something that has served Minnesotans well for 38 years, election-day registration.

The "send it back" argument seems aimed at the voter who is convinced -- despite a dearth of evidence -- that fraud is rampant in Minnesota elections.

That suspicious soul is likely even more prone to believing that the Legislature screwed up. As a suspicious journalist, I am.

If the ad's script had been mine to write, I would have squeezed in one more phrase: "Send it back to the Legislature -- because that's where it belongs."

Send it back because the adaptable statute books that legislators write and rewrite each year -- not the hard-to-alter Constitution -- is where the rules governing election administration should reside.

Send it back because this amendment and its ballot companion banning same-sex marriage amount to legislating by constitutional amendment. And that's a bad way to make laws.

Starting with the dedication of motor vehicle sales taxes to transportation purposes in 2006, voters have been asked in three of the last four elections to set in constitutional concrete a piece of legislation that the Legislature's majority liked and a governor of the opposite party did not.

DFL majorities in 2008 sent voters an amendment to increase the sales tax and dedicate the new money to natural resources and the arts, over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's "no new taxes" objection. Their scheme worked. It stood to reason that Republican legislators would try the same thing when they got their chance in the last two years.

For legislators, legislating by constitutional amendment has considerable appeal. It allows them to poke the governor in the eye while cloaking themselves in lofty rhetoric about "letting the people decide."

It also serves as bait to lure their backers to the polls. Former state Senate GOP aide Michael Brodkorb 'fessed up recently that one reason the amendment banning same-sex marriage is on Tuesday's ballot is that GOP legislators believed it would gin up turnout in their favor.

But the downside to legislating by constitutional amendment is considerable. Minnesota's needs and priorities change, but the Constitution endures. Amendments are hard to change, even when they become impediments to good policy.

If the voters bless this maneuver on Tuesday, look for it to recur whenever control of state government is divided. Too many legislators would rather clutter up the Constitution with partisan propositions than do what's required to get a law into the statute books when government is closely divided -- namely, compromise with the other party.

It's easy to conceive of a Republican-controlled Legislature asking Minnesotans to make it nearly impossible to raise state taxes, or to erode the right to workers' collective bargaining.

It's also not far-fetched to imagine a DFL Legislature asking voters to dedicate certain state taxes to their favorite budget items, thereby constricting the options available to future Legislatures for addressing changing state needs. After all, DFLers have already done just that.

Dayton and Carlson are putting their gubernatorial bully pulpit to good use by pointing out the defects in the voter ID amendment. It's been the afterthought amendment this fall, despite its potentially far-ranging consequences. It warrants more attention.

Dayton took his case against the amendment to this newspaper last Thursday. Again, he had a tag line worth noting. If legislators "produce bipartisan legislation that is in the best interest of Minnesota" concerning voting integrity, he will sign it, he said.

I take that as Dayton's pledge to do his part to legislate in the conventional way if this attempt to legislate by constitutional amendment fails. Minnesotans should take him up on that offer. Vote no.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. To read more commentaries about the photo ID amendment, go here.

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