Taxes. Health care. The war. Certainly, those are some of the more obvious contenders to be marquee issues in Minnesota's hard fought Senate race. But what has surprisingly emerged to dominate the air waves and the debate is a bill that was passed by the U.S. House but bogged down in the Senate more than a year ago: the Employee Free Choice Act.

Its innocuous name belies the furor raging over it in Minnesota and across the nation. Among the bill's key provisions: It would allow unions to be recognized without a secret ballot and would stiffen penalties for employers who retaliate against prounion employees. On one side is organized labor, which sees the bill as critical for shoring up its shrinking membership — just 7.4 percent of the private sector. On the other are business interests, who view EFCA as a threatening new shortcut to unionize vast new groups of workers. The rhetoric is amazingly bitter. Consider this comment about EFCA from U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue, who visited the Star Tribune Editorial Board this spring: "This is going to be a war, and, when it's over, not everybody is going to be left standing. There're no free rides on this deal.''

That pitched national battle is why the issue is at the forefront of Minnesota's Senate race. The Senate holds the key to EFCA's future. Democratic contender Al Franken supports EFCA; Republican Norm Coleman does not. Both labor and business have pledged millions for their cause, with some of that well-funded battle resulting in the local ads. So what should Minnesota voters make of all of this? Seeking an opinion from outside the immediate fray, we asked University of Minnesota labor economist John Budd for his perspective. His response: "Frankly, I think it's long overdue.'' In Budd's view, EFCA helps remedy an imbalance of power between workers and bosses, with the proposed bill giving labor a way to offset employers' powerful influence — such as barraging staffers with antiunion info at work.

But the EFCA has the potential to do more harm than good. Its provision allowing unions to bypass a secret ballot with something called a card check is a serious problem. Under the proposed law, unions could bypass a secret ballot if 50 percent of eligible employees signed an authorization form to form a union. It doesn't make sense: Would you pass a school levy or elect a mayor this way? The proposed card-check system also would invite peer-pressure from union sympathizers and, by making a supporter's name public, it has the potential to heighten the risk of employer retaliation.

The bill's stiffer penalties for employers who retaliate illegally are welcome. But backers need to rethink the proposed card check. Even if you agree there's an imbalance of power, doing away with the secret ballot isn't the solution. Unions exert a great deal of influence over members. They have the ability to tax through dues. They negotiate workplace rules that govern a big chunk of members' lives. The organizing process should be as democratic as possible. That means honoring the secret ballot, not doing away with it.