Hot Dish Politics: The colorful history of Minnesota's paper ballot

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 28, 2012 - 5:39 PM

Before the optical scanner ushered in black-on-white ballots with all the style of a standardized test, Minnesota had color-coded voting.

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Voting at an Anoka school in 2011. Before the optical scanner ushered in black-on-white ballots with all the style of a standardized test, Minnesota had color-coded voting.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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When you think of constitutional amendments in Minnesota, think pink.

Local ballot questions? Blue, of course. Nonpartisan county offices? Canary, naturally. Goldenrod, buff and green apply respectively to school bond issues, school board races and city offices.

These are the colors once assigned to paper ballots for different levels of governments or types of elections. The political palette lives on in state law and in the memories of some election officials -- but not at your local polling place. While a few township voters still may ink in their choices on colorful sheets, the optical scanner ushered in black-on-white ballots with all the style of a standardized test.

Oh, for the days of multicolored ballots, marked and counted by hand!

"Different people were responsible for preparing ballots," said Gary Poser, the state's elections director in the secretary of state's office. An absentee voter might receive a technicolor package of color-coded ballots, and polling places might have boxes for each of the colors.

And yes, constitutional amendments -- changes to the state's founding document -- were printed on pink ballots. State statutes, 204D.11, subdivision 2, still reads: "Amendments to the state Constitution shall be placed on a ballot printed on pink paper which shall be known as the 'pink ballot.' "

Joan Growe, who served as secretary of state from 1975 to 1999, inherited the multicolored paper ballot system and presided over its gradual replacement.

"I think it was a way of helping people who were counting, and helping voters," she said. She recalled that she learned "it's not yellow, it's canary," and that "nobody really wanted to be on a pink ballot." If a new color scheme were to be selected, she speculated it might be more hip -- mauve, coral and rust, perhaps?

Ballot and color do not always mix.

Near the end of the 1987 session, the DFL majority in the House proposed that DFL names on ballots appear against a blue-tinted background, and Republicans (then known as "Independent-Republicans") appear in yellow.

Republicans erupted in anger. The Star Tribune reported that Republicans "didn't want to appear in color and certainly didn't want to be contrasted in a festive yellow against candidates in an authoritative, confidence-building blue."

Facetious amendments from Republicans would have changed the Democratic color to ultra-liberal pink and the Republicans to good old red, white and blue. A similar volley from the Dems changed the Republican color scheme to gold, signifying their financial wherewithal.

Hours of hollering and filibustering ended when the speaker shut off the lights and Rep. Elton Redalin, a Republican who led the fight, collapsed and was taken to the hospital. The plan failed, Redalin recovered, but ballots now are an uninspiring and thoroughly nonpartisan black and white.

  • The Week Ahead

    The Minnesota Supreme Court hears another round of oral arguments on Tuesday on the state's proposed constitutional amendments. At issue this time are the titles Secretary of State Mark Ritchie assigned to both the photo ID and anti-gay-marriage amendments. Supporters of the amendments are challenging Ritchie's word choices. Oral arguments are at 9 a.m. in the Judicial Center at 25 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

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