In November, Minnesota voters will choose whether to add a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman — exactly as it is currently defined by statute now. The legislature passed the bill adding the referendum in order to keep judges in the state from overriding the statute, as has been done in other states, and allowing only the democratic avenues of constitutional amendments as a means to change the definition.
The legislature provided a specific title for the ballot measure, “Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman,” and oddly expected Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to use that title. Instead, Ritchie changed the title to the deceptive “Limiting the Status of Marriage to Opposite Sex Couples.” He did the same to the voter-ID constitutional referendum that will also appear on the ballot. Backers of the amendment took Ritchie to court, and yesterday the state Supreme Court reversed Ritchie’s changes and scolded him for exceeding his authority:
In a victory for Republican lawmakers and allied groups, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that two constitutional amendments will be presented to voters in November in the form the GOP-majority Legislature intended.
In two 4-2 rulings Monday, Aug. 27, the court dismissed a challenge to the wording of the proposed voter ID question and rejected Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s attempts to rewrite the titles of the voter ID and marriage amendment questions. …
“We conclude that when the Legislature has included a title for a ballot question in the bill proposing a constitutional amendment, the ‘appropriate title’ the secretary of state must provide for that ballot question is the title designated by the Legislature,” the court wrote. Ritchie “exceeded his authority” by substituting titles of his own for the ones passed by the Legislature, it said.
This is actually filled with irony, especially on the marriage question. The entire purpose of the constitutional amendment is to make sure that one person can’t simply change the definition of marriage, but that any change be accomplished through representative and direct democracy. In order to thwart that, one person (albeit an elected rather than appointed official) decided to unilaterally change the definition of the ballot initiative for his own agenda.
Gary Gross focuses on the impact of the voter-ID change, noting that liberal groups wanted the voter-ID initiative stricken from the ballot altogether, a move the court rejected:
This is a stinging defeat for “liberal-leaning groups” and for Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. These “liberal-leaning groups” included the ACLU-MN, Common Cause of DC and the League of Women Voters-MN. This was their last hope of stopping Photo ID from becoming part of the Minnesota Constitution. They know that it will pass if put to a vote of the people.
This is a stinging rebuke for Secretary of State Ritchie. He did his best to give the Photo ID a confusing title so people wouldn’t recognize it on the ballot. This afternoon, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that he didn’t have the authority to change the title that the legislature had given the proposed Photo ID constitutional amendment and the so-called Marriage Amendment.
This wording must sting the ACLU-MN and the League of Women Voters-MN:
The court majority wrote that the photo ID ballot question “is not so unreasonable and misleading” that it should be taken off the ballot. The justices said striking the question from the ballot would have been “unprecedented relief” and that the voters will be “the sole judge of the wisdom of such matters.”
This ruling essentially puts organizations like Common Cause of DC and the League of Women Voters-MN behind the proverbial 8-ball going into November’s election. If the vote on the Photo ID amendment were held today, it likely would pass with overwhelming support.
Polls show significant support for both bills, perhaps overwhelming for the voter-ID initiative. The marriage amendment will be trickier, in part because of the constitutional requirements for amendment initiatives. Unlike other ballot questions, which simply count the votes cast for each candidate or measure (such as bonding questions), constitutional amendments must be approved by a majority of all ballots cast. In other words, a blank on the question counts as a “no.” Supporters of both amendments have to work hard to make sure voters understand that an abstention is actually a negative vote on these measures. Voter-ID is popular enough that it would almost certainly survive some voter ignorance on this point, but the marriage amendment will be a closer call. Having an unbiased title will certainly help.