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Court makes right call in restoring amendment questions

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opinion Morris, 56267
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ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Supreme Court deserves recognition for upholding the Legislature's language on two constitutional amendment questions, striking down Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's attempt to skew the wording.

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Ritchie was misusing the nonpartisan duties of his office, apparently playing politics with a pair of constitutional amendments on which Minnesotans will vote this November. The questions pertain to the photo ID and the marriage amendments.

The Legislature put the two proposed constitutional amendments through extensive public scrutiny before settling on the wording of each question and its title. The wording was designed to capture the spirit and essence of each question in a clear, concise manner.

The Legislature originally titled a question pertaining to making photo ID a requirement at the polls "Photo identification required for voting."

Ritchie changed it to read: "Changes to in-person & absentee voting & voter registration; provisional ballots."

The main problem with Ritchie's proposed change was it failed to mention the photo ID provision, which is the heart of the amendment. This is both confusing and misleading. Polls show up to 80 percent of Minnesotans support photo ID. Yet, by Ritchie's title, many people may not be aware that measure is part of the proposed amendment.

The other amendment question defines how Minnesota recognizes marriage. The Legislature worded the question as: "Recognition of marriage solely between one man and one woman."

Ritchie switched it to: "Limiting the status of marriage to opposite sex couples."

Again, Ritchie's language is both confusing and misleading. If you read his proposed title to the letter, it says same-sex marriage would be revoked if this amendment passes. That clearly is not the case since same-sex marriage currently is not recognized in this state. The word "limiting" implies a much different action than preserving the existing legal definition of marriage.

It was inappropriate for Ritchie to alter these questions, blurring context and favoring his personal positions. Furthermore, local officials have expressed concern regarding biased nature of training material election judges have received. This includes Ritchie's office providing biased, one-sided voter ID "impact" materials to county auditors.

Interestingly, none of this would have been a problem if Ritchie had followed his own example from 2008. That year, Ritchie declined to substitute his own title for the one written by the then-Democrat-led Legislature. It appears he did not even take the steps to approve the ballot required of him by law. Instead, he deferred entirely to the Legislature. The title for the Legacy Amendment - a sales tax that feeds a complex funding formula for arts, cultural heritage and parks - was "Clean Water, Wildlife, Cultural Heritage, and Natural Areas." Despite the absence of any substantive part of the amendment - including a tax increase - Ritchie raised no objection to the title.

For more than 100 years, the Supreme Court (Marr v. Stearns, 1898) has held that the form and manner of constitutional amendments "are left to the judgment and discretion of the Legislature." The Minnesota Constitution is clear that proposing constitutional amendments is the sole authority of the Legislature. Until 2008, the Secretary of State had created appropriate, impartial titles for each proposed amendment, if the legislature did not include one. By allowing the Democratic Legislature's title for the Legacy Amendment to stand, Ritchie acknowledged that our Supreme Court and Constitution trump the Secretary of State's statutory authority. When the Legislature writes its own title, it must be placed on the ballot along with the question, unless it is misleading or evasive.

Fast forward to 2012. We have the same Secretary of State, two constitutional amendment proposals approved by the Legislature in the same manner as 2008, and titles provided by the Legislature. What's different? For one, the titles passed by the Legislature more accurately reflect the amendments. For another, Republicans have gained the legislative majority, which does not match the party of Ritchie, who personally disapproves of at least one proposed amendment.

The Minnesota Supreme Court heard testimony regarding both of these amendment questions. It deliberated and, in the end, did the right thing Aug. 27 (in a 4-2 vote) by maintaining the integrity of the ballot questions as passed by the Legislature, restoring the language we approved. But voters need to be aware of what Ritchie was up to - and it's beneath the dignity of his office.

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