Amendment titles go to Minn. high court on Tuesday

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 31, 2012 - 6:01 AM

The state Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday over what wording should describe two proposed constitutional questions.

Round 2 of the battle over the language of Minnesota's proposed constitutional amendments goes before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, focusing on the boldfaced titles that voters will see when they go to the polls in November.

Supporters of the marriage amendment and the photo ID amendment are seeking to stop Secretary of State Mark Ritchie from writing titles that the supporters find misleading and worry might hurt the chances for passage. Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson argue that state law requires Ritchie to write the titles, and that the wordings he chose accurately describe the two amendments.

"Titles are important because they give people a mind-set about what is in the amendment," said Fred Morrison, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Minnesota Law School who was among a group of law professors filing a brief in support of Ritchie's position. "The amendment itself is not printed on the ballot."

The Republican-controlled Legislature originally titled the marriage amendment "Recognition of marriage solely between one man and one woman." Ritchie's title is: "Limiting the status of marriage to opposite sex couples."

Similarly, the Legislature titled the elections amendment "Photo identification required for voting." Ritchie, a DFLer who testified against the amendment, titled it to "Changes to in-person & absentee voting & voter registration; provisional ballots."

The court is to hear oral arguments on the title challenges Tuesday.

Round 1 in the language wars involved the text of the ballot question on the ID amendment, which is being challenged by ID opponents, and on which the Supreme Court heard arguments on July 17. That issue has yet to be settled.

Both amendments are emotional and are likely to be intensely debated this summer and fall, and the language of their presentation could make a difference at the polls. It is an especially important detail with constitutional amendments, because they must pass with a majority of all those voting. That means that a voter who skips an amendment while voting in other races has in effect voted against the amendment.

In the ballot title arguments to be heard Tuesday, legislators and others who support the amendments have argued in court filings that Ritchie's "illicit actions are undoubtedly politically motivated. He has publicly opposed both the Voter ID amendment and the Marriage Amendment." They accuse Ritchie, a member of the executive branch of government, of usurping the Legislature's authority, which has the sole authority to propose constitutional amendments to the voters.

Even if Ritchie has the power to create ballot titles, the legislators argued, "he erred by selecting a title that is misleading, inaccurate and will confuse the voters."

In response, lawyers for the secretary of state and the attorney general point to a state law that requires the secretary of state to provide a title.

"Since 1919, Minnesota Legislation has explicitly granted to the Secretary of State the responsibility to designate the title on the general election ballot for a proposed constitutional amendment," the lawyers say, adding that Ritchie's selected language is appropriate and consistent with the purpose and effect of the proposed amendments.

The lawyers also raised the possibility that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the Legislature's title language when he held symbolic veto ceremonies to show his opposition to the amendments.

Dan McGrath, head of the Minnesota Majority, which is lobbying to pass the photo ID amendment and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the title language is important. He said polls indicate strong support for photo ID, sometimes called voter ID, and Ritchie eliminated any reference to photographic identification in his title.

"I think it's a deliberate attempt to suppress votes by causing confusion," McGrath said.

Greta Bergstrom, a spokeswoman for TakeAction Minnesota, which opposes the photo ID issue, said Ritchie's language more clearly describes the full effect of the photo ID amendment on same-day registration and absentee balloting. "We believe the secretary of state's title gives voters a much clearer picture of the changes," she said.

Ritchie has asked the court to rule on the amendment questions by Aug. 27 so he and local officials will have time to prepare ballots for the general election.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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