Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer who has campaigned against the photo ID requirement for voting passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, said Thursday he will not defend the language of the proposed constitutional amendment in a court challenge that names him as the defendant.

Ritchie's decision, announced in a letter to Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, followed a vote by Republican legislative leaders earlier in the day to hire their own attorney to fight a lawsuit that seeks to derail the amendment before it reaches voters in November.

The day's rapid-fire events escalated what has become a high-stakes summertime preliminary to the full-fledged political campaign over the photo ID plan and related election law changes.

Ritchie said that as the state's top elections official, he has a "ministerial duty to ensure that the ballots are properly printed, not to take a side as to whether a ballot question proposed by the Legislature accurately or completely represents a constitutional amendment under consideration." He said he would file no legal defense of the language but will follow the court's decision, whatever that is.

The announcement upset Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, who accused Ritchie of shirking his duty to stand up for even those legislative decisions he disagrees with.

"He's an elected official representing the state of Minnesota, and insofar as I'm concerned, he's walking away from his responsibility to defend the actions of the state," Senjem said. "And I'm disappointed in that."

Many litigants

The dispute concerns a legal challenge pending before the state Supreme Court. The League of Women Voters Minnesota, Common Cause, Jewish Community Action and several individuals filed the suit, saying the language that voters will see on the Nov. 6 ballot does not "accurately and factually" describe the constitutional changes being proposed.

Groups on both sides of the issue have filed briefs to join the suit, including the pro-ID group Minnesota Majority and anti-ID organizations such as AARP and the St. Paul NAACP.

The Republican sponsors of the ID bills, Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake and Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson, have filed a separate brief in support of the amendment.

On Thursday morning, Republican legislative leaders jumped in to defend their language. One of their motivations was that Ritchie, who denounced the amendment at the DFL State Convention less than two weeks ago, would not aggressively defend the language the Legislature passed. The proposed amendment passed both houses in April without a single DFL vote, but it must be approved by voters to take effect.

"The Constitution is very clear on this -- if both parties pass this, it goes to the voters," said House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

Zellers supported a motion adopted by the Legislative Coordinating Commission, made up of legislative leaders from both parties, to hire the Winthrop and Weinstine law firm, at an estimated cost of $18,000, to represent the Legislature's interests. The legal strategy was approved by a voice vote, and it appeared that Republicans supported it and DFLers opposed it.

"I don't think it makes sense for the Legislature to actually intervene for the first time and spend taxpayer dollars to defend this, when somebody else is already going to be doing that same work," said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, noting that the Minnesota attorney general would be acting as Ritchie's lawyer in the case.

Accuracy disputed

After Ritchie's letter was released later in the day, however, it appeared that the attorney general would not be defending the language, because Ritchie said he "will not be filing a brief in this matter." Ritchie's office declined to comment further.

As it stands now, voters would be asked to decide this question: "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?"

The actual changes to the Constitution, which will not appear on the ballot, would require a two-step provisional voting system for those without a valid government-issued ID and would require "substantially equivalent identity and eligibility verification" for all voters before they vote. The effect of the eligibility change is in dispute; supporters say it will end the process of "vouching" at the polls, which they view as an invitation to fraud, while opponents say it could greatly limit or even eliminate Minnesota's popular system of same-day registration.

Underlying the legal wrangling is the national divide over the photo ID requirement and accompanying legal changes, which Republicans see as a sensible way of deterring fraud and DFLers view as an attempt to disenfranchise voters who may skew Democratic, such as elderly, poor and student voters.

The court is set to hear oral arguments July 17 and is expected to rule relatively quickly because of the need to prepare ballots for the general election.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042