What’s In a Name? Mark Ritchie and That Which We Call Amendments

18 Jul

(Alternative title to this post: What do you name a ballot question that, by amending the constitution to require presenting Photo ID at the polls, also happens to create a new system for offering ‘free’ state IDs, institutes a “provisional ballot” system in a state that has never had one, and, oh yeah, also ends  the Minnesota tradition of same-day election registration  – and, oh wait, does this all at an enormous but as of yet unstudied cost to property taxpayers?)

It’s been over a week since undies on the right have been all up in a bunch over Secretary of State Mark Ritchie doing his job – but between Michigan sunsets, recovering from vacationing, and a then a mercifully brief but nasty stomach virus, who had time to comment? TIP is back from hiatus.

Minnesotans have surely heard that Ritchie first ruffled feathers when he titled the amendment being pushed by Minnesotans for Marriage (M4M) ““Limiting the Status of Marriage to Opposite Sex Couples.” Accusing Ritchie of playing politics, amendment proponents cried foul: “Those words are definitely considered negative and misleading. And I believe they’re created to sway the voter,” said State Senator Warren Limmer. He preferred his own poll-tested title ““Recognition of Marriage as Solely Between One Man and One Woman” which was of course drafted in a context completely devoid of politics and was not in any way crafted to “sway the voter” – -you silly, cynical reader.

The problem for those who played politics with our constitution who are now shocked – the horror! –  to find themselves accusing someone else of, you know, playing politics? Secretary Ritchie was just doing his job.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

As Dale Carpenter, Professor of Constitutional law at the University of Minnesota explains:

One thing the news outlets have been missing is that it’s actually the legal responsibility of the secretary of state, not the legislature, to determine the ballot title.

That has been the case since 1919, when the Secretary of State was given authority to choose an “appropriate title” for amendments passed by the legislature. The idea is that the governmental body that wants the amendment should not be allowed single-handedly to stack the deck in its favor by choosing the title as well.

It’s a basic matter of separation of powers. In the case of the marriage amendment, the legislature tried to impose language designed to help pass the amendment. The Secretary of State has now corrected that by choosing one that accurately characterizes the amendment. There was nothing improper about his action. In fact, he had the legal obligation to exercise independent judgment about it.

As angry as conservatives were about the marriage amendment being titled to accurately reflect the effect of a “yes” vote, when it came to the Photo-ID-And-All-Sorts-of-Other-Expensive-Changes-To-Our-Election-System Amendment, they became downright apoplectic.

Politics, they cry! This wreaks of awful, stinking, nasty politics!

Some Background; or Hello, Pot? Ms. Kiffmeyer is holding on Line 1

In 2004, one of my first assignments as a political organizer at the SEIU Minnesota State Council was to work on the issue of voting rights.  At the time, Minnesota’s Secretary of State, Mary Kiffmeyer, had declined to seek a waiver to implementation of the federal Help America Vote Act. Hasty implementation of the hastily passed and signed federal law could have led to serious problems for voters that fall – which is why most states had sought a waiver from requirements to upgrade voting equipment and voter file systems.

A coalition of non-profits, unions, and faith communities came together to express concerns to the legislature. That year the group, which came to form the Minnesota Voting Rights Coalition, was actually able to pass pro-active, voter-friendly legislation that Governor Pawlenty signed. Among other things, the legislation included the Minnesota Voters Bill of Rights, which is now posted in every polling place across the state on election day. Included in the list is “you have the right to register to vote and to vote on election day.” We also limited the ability of “challengers” to intimidate voters by circumscribing their behavior in a polling place, requiring that they attest to personal knowledge of their challenge in writing and barring them from speaking to or making direct contact with voters.

Our nemesis at that time was then Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer.

(The son my mother raised feels compelled to write the following: this year I served on the Minnesota Legislative Sunset Advisory Commission, appointed by Governor Dayton, a Commission Representative Kiffmeyer chairs. As one often learns when you actually meet or work with political adversaries, she turned out to be quite human – kind and generous with me, in fact. When it comes to voting, she just happens to be wrong.)

In addition to the ill-planned implementation of HAVA, that year we dealt with issues like the SOS sending out recruitment notices for election judges that seemed to only find themselves listed on partisan listservs, constant fear-mongering about the boogeyman of voter fraud, and then came the real doozy. As the November election neared, the Secretary of State sent out an ominous warning about the potential for terrorists to invade our polling places.

Be suspicious of people who choose to vote in bulky clothes. In Minnesota. In November.

Using the Fox-approved term, “homicide bomber,” the poster warned us to look out for people who looked “nervous,” sported a “shaved head,” smelled of flowery perfumes or were quietly talking (or praying!) to themselves.

“Homicide bombers may wear a coat or vest that looks too big or bulky and may be out of place for the climate,” we were warned.

Fleet Farm shoppers and fashion victims everywhere cried foul.

Beware of bulky clothes. In November. In Minnesota.

Back to that Ballot Title

In “Why Sloppy Drafting Will Kill the Voter ID Amendment,” David Schultz argues that the amendment, by dealing with more than one subject, violates the standard that a constitutional amendment must deal with only one question. He focuses the fact that voters are asked to vote on both whether to require photo ID and whether to set up a system for free state-issued identifications. But the amendment does much more than that.

As just yesterday was argued before the Minnesota Supreme Court, the amendment will also alter (end) same-day registration and, for the first time, create a system of “provisional ballots.” Although the Help America Vote Act of 2004 instituted “provisional ballots” in states where a voter’s eligibility might be disputed on election day, in Minnesota we never needed them. Why? Because we have voter friendly same-day election registration. (PSST… other states – it’s why we consistently have the highest voter turnout in the country.) Provisional ballots, by the way, result in a high percentage of eligible votes simply not being counted.

“Don’t the people have a right to vote on something that’s not deceptive?,” asked Justice Paul Anderson yesterday. Indeed.

The other side didn’t even bother to argue that the actual amendment doesn’t do much more than the question they wanted to put to voters. Instead, they argued process. The legislature has the sole power to decide what question to put on the ballot. If it’s confusing and misleading, then so be it. Elections have consequences.

SOS Mark Ritchie

Pity Mark. The Star Tribune notes the “familiar place” that is the “political hot seat” for our Secretary of State. Somewhat of an understatement.

Although Republicans have tried to make him a boogeyman after Franken’s recount, he was reelected handily, perhaps because so many voters saw every detail of that recount in the light of day. (Thank you, The Uptake!)

And recounts aren’t the only part of his job he has done exceptionally.

Although we know that the specter of voter fraud is something the other side flogs but is actually not a problem, Secretary Ritchie has taken concerns for election integrity seriously.  He introduced an innovative, bipartisan solution: electronic poll books. This could be implemented for a lot less money than the current mess before voters, would address all the concerns about identification but without keeping eligible voters from voting on election day. Don’t have a photo ID? A picture could be taken of you on election day, at the poll.

A wise, sensible, bipartisan solution. His reward? Even the Republican co-authors abandoned ship when they were forced to realize that this would get in the way of their partisan decision to move ahead with a deceptive constitutional amendment that will increase costs to local governments (hello, property tax hikes!), fundamentally change our voting system, and disenfranchise perfectly eligible voters.

Such is the Minnesota we live in today. Sigh.

One Response to “What’s In a Name? Mark Ritchie and That Which We Call Amendments”

  1. john anderson August 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    I yammered about this sort of thing about the chick-fil-a wars on my facebook and tried to make the point while it isn’t exactly a model of municipal governance to not let a franchise businesses be able to open in Chicago because of the political views of the owner on a hot button issue, it’s sort of inevitable. It seems to be exactly the type of problem that will arise by turning the question of who gets to be a family and marriage itself into a political football. I mean once marriage is a political issue, why on earth do you think politicians won’t treat it like a political issue and act accordingly? Generally speaking, politicians treat political issues politically because they are political issues. And it’s the same with the “war on voting” stuff. I mean if you turn the right to vote into a partisan political issue, people from another party are going treat it like a partisan issue because you made it a partisan issue.

    That said Zeller’s probably just should have just gone all out and named it the Defeat-Terrorism-Hug-A-Grandma-Cookies-For-Everyone-And-Fridays-Are-Awesome Amendment.

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