The Republican-controlled state Legislature enjoyed two major victories last week as the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled to keep the Legislature’s titles and questions on the ballot for the voter ID and marriage amendment questions.
Amendment supporters were pleased with the outcome while opponents reiterated concerns that the question and title wording could mislead voters.
Title changes and lawsuits over the summer left the ballot wording in flux for the highly controversial proposed constitutional amendments.
In two 4-2 decisions released Aug. 27, the high court had the final word, deferring to the Legislature’s authority regarding constitutional amendments and its original titles and questions.
“I think they chose the decision that’s the most understandable and that would not cause them to look like they’re an activist court,” said Marie Failinger, a law professor at Hamline University.
Voter ID opponents filed one of the lawsuits in May, claiming the Legislature’s ballot question was misleading and therefore should be removed from the ballot.
The other two were filed after Secretary of State Mark Ritchie changed the amendment titles from the Legislature’s original titles. The petitioners claimed the Legislature, not the secretary of state, has the higher authority to title amendments.
“This case stands for the prospect that the court basically is not going to second-guess the Legislature,” said Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
The majority opinion on the voter ID ballot question acknowledged concerns with the questions, but didn’t deem them misleading enough to require intervention.
The court said that it “may indeed have been wiser for the Legislature to include the entire amendment on the ballot.”
Failinger said the ruling could have far-reaching implications.
“I think the potentially worst impact of these cases is that later, ideologically driven legislatures may decide that they can pull a bait-and-switch on the voters once again for their particular issues,” she said.
The impact of the rulings on the November election depends on whether wording affects a voter’s choice when faced with the ballot — a divisive topic.
A 2010 study by two political scientists found “strong evidence that ballot wording has the potential to significantly shift public opinion.”
However, it also found that a realistic election environment — where voters are exposed to new information and learn over the course of the campaign — will mitigate ballot-framing effects.
The ruling ignited voter ID opponents to further their efforts to educate voters.
“This decision means that we will need to work harder than ever, not just to make sure that voters get to the polls and know what is on their ballot, but also to understand what is not on their ballot,” League of Women Voters Minnesota President Stacy Doepner-Hove said in a statement.
Two of the main concerns from voter ID opponents centered on the lack of mention of provisional balloting and the difference between “valid photo identification” as written in the question and “valid government-issued photographic identification” as written in the amendment.
Provisional ballots are votes cast on Election Day that aren’t counted until voters make a second trip to election officials with the required ID.
The University of Minnesota’s College Democrats and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group are working to inform students and to campaign against both amendments.
“These amendments are really going to shape the direction of this state, and it’s too bad that people might vote the way that they don’t want to just because the wording is confusing,” said Daveen Trentman, vice president of College Democrats and a University student.
Amendment supporters, however, similarly argued that Ritchie’s ballot titles were confusing and could hinder voters’ comprehension.
“The retitling of the voter ID amendment seemed to me something that could and probably would have confused the voters,” said Teresa Collett, a University of St. Thomas law professor who represented the Legislature in the title cases.
She expressed concern that confusion could lead some people to leave the question blank, which counts as a “no” vote under the state constitution.
Minnesota College Republicans Chairman Ryan Lyk said that by leaving out the terms “photo ID” or “voter ID,” Ritchie’s title would mislead voters.
“We want the people to know what exactly they’re voting for,” he said.
Justices Alan Page and Paul Anderson dissented from the majority opinion in both cases, providing starkly different arguments than their peers.
In the voter ID question case, the court unanimously agreed that the petitioners were not entitled to the removal of the question from the ballot entirely.
Justices differed, however, on what alternative action to take, with the two dissenting justices leaning toward inclusion of the entire amendment on the ballot.
“What we are dealing with here is a classic bait-and-switch,” Page wrote in his dissent.
“The ballot question misstates, in a deceptive and misleading way, what the proposed amendment will require of voters.”
The majority opinion, however, evaluated the question with a “high degree of deference to the Legislature,” and therefore didn’t find the question misleading enough to alter or remove.
Page and Anderson also dissented in the title cases.
Argument centered on separation of powers and on a 1919 statute that says the secretary of state “shall provide an appropriate title for each question printed on the pink ballot.”
The court concluded that when the Legislature passes a title for the ballot question, that’s the “appropriate title” the secretary of state must provide. In the majority opinion, the court wrote Ritchie “exceeded his authority” by retitling the amendments.