Secretary of State Mark Ritchie
Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune
Amendments' altered wording fuels political ire
- Article by: RACHEL E. STASSEN-BERGER
- Star Tribune
- July 9, 2012 - 9:53 PM
The pitched fight over constitutional amendments is moving to Minnesota's highest court as both sides engage in fresh battle over exactly what language Minnesota voters will see in November.
On Monday morning, supporters of the amendment to define marriage as strictly a union of a man and a woman joined with Republican lawmakers in asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to reverse Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's editing of the amendment's title.
Far from shrinking from the controversy, Ritchie, a Democrat, announced hours later that he also planned to change the title of the photo ID amendment, prompting renewed charges that he is using his nonpartisan office for political purposes.
The debate over the language that is to appear on November ballots mirrors similar fights in other states, and draws the court deep into partisan clashes.
The constitutional issues ensnared the Legislature for years and now have been tossed to voters, who will be barraged with multimillion-dollar, statewide campaigns. Already, backers and foes of the amendments have raised more than $6 million to influence opinions.
The two sides say the measures will define fundamental questions of Minnesota life: Who can marry and who can vote. Voters' judgments this year likely will decide the answer for a generation.
The state Supreme Court has already scheduled arguments for July 17 over one part of the ballot language regarding the photo ID question -- over opponents' charges that the wording of the question itself is incomplete and also misleading. On Monday, the court said it would hear arguments on July 31 over whether Ritchie properly titled the amendment to constitutionally define marriage as only a union of heterosexuals. It may deal with a third suit over photo ID language, as supporters of that amendment said they may sue over the changes Ritchie proposed Monday.
If Ritchie's changes remain intact, November voters would see a question on their ballots about "limiting ... marriage to opposite sex couples" rather than one about recognizing "marriage solely between one man and one woman."
They would also see a question titled "changes to in-person & absentee voting & voter registration; provisional ballots," which Ritchie picked when he cast aside the Legislature's preference of "photo identification required for voting."
If past practice stands, voters will see the titles in big bold letters on their ballots before they are asked the constitutional questions.
With the blessing of Democratic Attorney General Lori Swanson, Ritchie said he has authority to title the amendments on the ballot, even though the Legislature has sole power to place constitutional questions before voters. State law says the secretary of state can "provide an appropriate title" for constitutional amendments, he said.
But amendment supporters see other motives.
"This looks to me like an attempt to suppress vote on the amendment by confusing the voters," said Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority, a key group supporting the photo ID amendment.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chief sponsor of the marriage amendment, said he was alarmed. "I'm rather saddened to see a secretary of state get involved in a partisan political issue like this."
In contrast to his highly public moves on the ballot questions, Ritchie has kept a low profile regarding his strategy. His spokeswoman, Pat Turgeon, said he would not answer any questions on the pending litigation.
The vote over the marriage amendment is expected to be a close one, with opponents hoping that Minnesota will become the first state to reject a constitutional question defining marriage as an institution between one man and one woman.
The language could influence votes.
Patrick Egan, a professor of politics and public policy at New York University, said while that "very few people" will approach the voting booth undecided on the marriage question, the language on the ballot could make a difference to those few. In California, where there was a similar fight about ballot language over a marriage amendment, a poll found that the question picked up or lost a few points depending on the exact wording that appeared before voters.
The language the Minnesota Legislature proposed, which speaks of "a recognition" of marriage between one man and one woman, could appeal to people's sense of tradition, whereas the language Ritchie picked sounds more "exclusionary," Egan said.
Limmer said the new language was "designed to mislead and sway the voter." He was one of a handful of Republican lawmakers who joined with pro-amendment Minnesota for Marriage in suing Ritchie and Swanson over the change.
Opponents of the amendment on Monday refused to be drawn into the fray.
"At the end of the day, Minnesotans will vote on the question at hand," said Richard Carlbom, campaign manager of Minnesota United for All Families, the main campaign arm of amendment opponents.
Photo ID fight
If Ritchie gets sued over changing the language introducing the photo ID question, it will be the second time he was hauled into court over the issue.
Foes of that amendment charged in a lawsuit last month that the question lawmakers wrote for the ballot is too vague and does not fully inform voters of the amendment's ramifications.
Ritchie, a photo ID opponent, declined to defend the question. Legislators and others, however, are defending it.
The court will hear oral arguments on that case July 17.
Ritchie's new proposed four-part photo ID title -- which is separate from the question -- underscores the point that amendment opponents made to the Supreme Court: that the amendment does far more than just require voters to present photographic identification before they cast ballots.
But Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican from Big Lake and a former secretary of state, said the fact that Ritchie left out any mention of photographic identification in his proposed title omits "the heart of the amendment" and shows "he fundamentally misunderstands the issue."
The court's decision on all these matter may come soon. Ritchie has told the justices he needs clear court direction by Aug. 27 so that election officials can properly prepare ballots.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb
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