Details of proposed constitutional amendments are rarely included in the ballot question voters see and the photo ID amendment should be no exception to that rule, lawyers for the Legislature have told the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In defending a ballot question asking if voters should be required to show a photo ID, lawyers for the House and Senate said in a brief filed this week that the Legislature "adhered to long-standing tradition by generally describing the proposed amendment" rather than listing every detail.

"There is no requirement that the Minnesota Legislature provides voters with a 'Cliffs Notes' summary of the proposed amendment in the ballot questions," the lawyers wrote in their brief.

"Indeed, of the 213 proposed ballot questions in Minnesota's history, at least 42 of the questions have contained either no suggestion as to the nature of the amendment, or such limited detail that one would not know what changes the proposed amendment would make by simply viewing the ballot question," argued the lawyers, Robert Weinstine, Thomas Boyd and Kristopher Lee.

Their firm was hired by the Republican-controlled Legislature to defend a proposed constitutional amendment the Legislature passed this year that is to go to the voters in November. League of Women Voters-Minnesota and other groups have asked the Supreme Court to remove the question from the ballot, saying the language voters will see does not fairly and accurately describe the extent of the proposed constitutional changes.

When the Legislature wants to amend the state Constitution, it writes the new constitutional language as well as a ballot question to be submitted to voters. The new constitutional language does not appear on the ballot -- only the ballot question does.

In this case, the ballot question states: "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013?"

In the dark?

What the ballot question doesn't say is that the ID must be a "valid government-issued photographic identification," a more limited subset of photo IDs. Also unsaid: If passed, the amendment provides for a new system of two-step "provisional" voting for those without proper ID and makes changes to voter registration that may limit the popular practice of registering and voting on Election Day.

The League of Women Voters lawsuit says the ballot question leaves voters in the dark about the real changes being proposed.

The Supreme Court is now receiving written briefs from all sides and will hear oral arguments on July 17.

In their brief, the Legislature's lawyers said the House and Senate have "sole and exclusive authority" to write ballot questions and are not required to "select a ballot question that is the best and fairest that could have been framed by a trained lawyer."

Ballot questions in the past have been far more cryptic -- sometimes mentioning only the number of the amendment to be changed. Voters, the brief states, should be encouraged "to actually read and analyze the proposed amendments themselves."

The 2008 Legacy amendment for natural resources and arts funding, for example, was far more complicated than the ballot question voters saw on the ballot, the lawyers wrote. Under the League of Women Voters' argument, that ballot question should have been found to be "fundamentally unfair and misleading," the lawyers said, but the 2008 language was "entirely consistent" with past practice and with the state Constitution.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042