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Continued: Minn. Supreme Court drawn into newest chapter of 'voting wars’

The Minnesota Supreme Court plans to move quickly in determining whether to change or quash a constitutional amendment on voter ID before it appears on the November ballot.

The court has ordered oral arguments for July 17, an expedited schedule that would allow it to order changes to the ballot question before the November election. Opponents have asked the court to strike the ballot question, which would require voters to obtain government-approved photo identification before voting. They say that as worded, the amendment gives short shrift to broader changes the amendment would make.

In its scheduling order, the high court has also asked the state for a deadline by which a decision is needed "in order to modify the ballot, if necessary, before the November" election.

Opponents to the amendment asked the court for action last week. On Wednesday, one of those groups, Common Cause, said that the court had scheduled oral arguments.

The case puts Minnesota's high court in the same company as judicial branches across the country that are weighing the pros and cons of partisan voting disputes.

The Minnesota justices will immediately become unwilling participants in what election law professor Rick Hasen calls, "the voting wars." Unlike most cases, in which justices get to choose, cases related to election law go directly to the high court.

"Since the 2000 election, people realized that the rules of the game mattered a great deal and there's been a lot of jockeying to change those rules," said Hasen, of the University of California-Irvine. Minnesota fired the first shot in its nationalized fight over the 2008 Senate recount and is returning to the trenches with the photo ID court battle.

The Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year approved putting the photo ID question to voters as a constitutional amendment. Last year it approved legislation that would have required photo ID under statute, but DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed that proposal. Governors have no power over constitutional amendment proposals.

Challengers to the new proposal say it goes far beyond the simple showing of photo identification and would instead "radically change" the way Minnesota votes. The question that will be put before voters, they say, is vastly oversimplified and does not "truthfully" inform voters of the full scope of the changes. Proponents say that boiling down complex issues to a simpler ballot question is typical and that the photo ID question differs little from previous ballot questions in that respect.

Opponent becomes defendant

The ballot question has already put Secretary of State Mark Ritchie in the hot seat. Ritchie was sued last week by opponents of the amendment because his office makes him responsible for administering the election ballot. But Ritchie, a Democrat, ardently opposes the amendment and has made no secret of his desire to have it fail.

That has drawn fire from amendment supporters, who say Ritchie is obliged to stay neutral.

"He's out touring the state stumping against photo ID," said Dan McGrath, of the pro-amendment Minnesota Majority. Ritchie's behavior, McGrath said, displays a "blatant bias" that could interfere with his ability to uphold what the Legislature passed.

Ritchie spokeswoman Pat Turgeon said the office would not comment on pending litigation. The attorney general's office will act as the attorney for the state on the issue.

Minnesota Majority may look to intervene in the case to have its point of view aired as well, McGrath said. Anyone other than the original challengers and the Secretary of State have until Friday to tell the court they wish to be part of the case. Briefs in the case are due by July 2.

If the court allows the ballot question to go forward as written, voters would be asked in November whether they want to amend the Constitution "to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters" starting in 2013. Polls have found that Minnesota voters like the idea of requiring voter identification.

Opponents, which include the League of Women Voters Minnesota, Common Cause, Jewish Community Action, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and a series of Minnesota voters, say the actual amendment would go far beyond that simple question.

It could, they say, end the state's same-day registration, limit absentee voting and require the state to adopt provisional voting. It could also cost the state $40 million to provide free, state-issued identification to voters in need and millions each year after that, they say. Voters will be presented with none of those details on their Election Day ballots. In other states, groups have argued that the true intent of photo ID requirements is voter suppression among minorities, the elderly and college students.

Proponents say they are defending the integrity of a system that, without photo identification, is prone to fraud.

McGrath said the ballot language is perfectly clear.

"The heart and soul of the constitutional amendment is photographic identification," he said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb

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