What’s in a Name?
Here in Flyover Country, we’re used to being ignored by the élite media on the coasts. That could change, for a few weeks anyway. This November, Minnesota will join the list of states that have had votes on whether to enact a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Minnesota may become the first state to defeat such an amendment, and this may be partially due to the actions of the Minnesota Secretary of State, an unassuming politician in what is often considered — by the rest of the country — as a boring state.
I live in Minnesota. It’s a place of stunning contrasts. It may be the only state where you can regularly see people walking around in shorts and a parka. Minnesota has a long progressive history. It also has an active social conservative movement, including dedicated opponents of abortion in both major political parties. It’s a state where hunting is a favorite leisure activity, and so has strong opinions on both sides of gun control / gun rights issues. It’s a state with one of the nation’s most liberal U.S. Representatives [Keith Ellison (D-Minneapolis), a co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus], whose district is literally adjacent to a district with one of the nation’s most conservative Representatives [Michele Bachmann (R-Stillwater), founder of the House Tea Party Caucus].
So, in 2010, we elected conservative Republican Tea-Party types to majorities in both the state Senate and the state House, but a liberal Democrat — Mark Dayton — as Governor. We also elected a Democratic Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie. He’s gotten involved in the process related to the upcoming vote on an anti-same-sex-marriage amendment, and his actions could affect the success or failure of that amendment.
In 1997, shortly after Congress enacted DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act, which is the federal anti-same-sex-marriage law — you can tell that law was named by Republicans, right?), Minnesota enacted a statute banning same-sex marriage in Minnesota. The state does not recognize same-sex civil unions, either. Same-sex couples cannot get married in Minnesota, and if they get married elsewhere, Minnesota does not recognize these as legal marriages. Not content with this — and recognizing that laws banning same-sex unions would not survive constitutional tests — Republicans here have been trying to amend the Minnesota Constitution. Until 2010, no anti-same-sex-marriage amendment has passed in both Minnesota’s Congressional houses, mostly because at least one always had a progressive Democratic majority.
That changed in 2010, when the national Tea Party wave swept over the Minnesota legislature, and Republicans won control of both the House and the Senate.
Governor Dayton surely would have vetoed any Minnesota law further abridging rights of same-sex couples. He hasn’t been afraid to use his veto pen against a variety of extremely conservative laws that have landed on his desk in the last eighteen months. He even stood up to the legislature in a budget battle that shut down the state government for three weeks last summer.
But the process of amending the Minnesota Constitution does not involve the Governor. An amendment has to pass both Houses of the Legislature, then is submitted to the people for a vote. It requires a majority of the votes cast in the election — which means that if someone votes for President (for example) but votes neither Yes nor No on the Amendment question, then that is considered equivalent to a No vote. Since ten to twenty percent of voters don’t vote on Constitutional questions, this makes these votes harder than a straightforward majority.
The proposed Amendment, as passed by the state legislature, would add a Section 13 to the Minnesota Constitution’s Article XIII (Miscellaneous Subjects), which currently has 12 Sections:
Section 13. Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.
Note that this amendment is strictly unnecessary, since Minnesota law already forbids same-sex marriage. The desire to enact this amendment, however, may be an admission that the anti-marriage-rights law is actually unconstitutional.
The amendment itself will not appear on the ballot. What will appear is a question that describes the amendment. The legislature provided this as the wording of the question that will be on the November ballot:
Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?
The question would also be given a title, to be printed in bold letters above the question. The title suggested by the legislature is:
Recognition of marriage solely between one man and one woman
However, according to Minnesota law, the legislature can word ballot questions, but doesn’t get to assign ballot titles. That responsibility belongs to the Secretary of State. Democrat Mark Ritchie has decided on the following title to accompany this anti-same-sex-marriage amendment:
“Limiting The Status Of Marriage To Opposite Sex Couples.”
This would seem to more properly express the intent of the proposed amendment, since its purpose is indeed to prevent same-sex marriages — which are already illegal — rather than to allow opposite-sex marriages — which are already legal. Republicans in Minnesota, however, are complaining that Secretary Ritchie’s title casts the proposed amendment in a negative light, since “Limiting” rights would tend to be less popular than “Recognizing” the current status quo without mention of who would be adversely affected (to which I suppose one could say, “Duh!”).
Secretary Ritchie has also changed the title on another Republican amendment that will be on the Minnesota ballot this November. The new Republican legislature tried to enact a law requiring voters to present state-approved picture ID in order to vote. In order to make this work, the law would also alter a variety of Minnesota’s rules regarding same-day voter registration, absentee voting, and provisional ballots. Governor Dayton vetoed that law, so the legislature decided to try to make it a Constitutional amendment (which would be harder to repeal later anyway).
The title for the voter-ID amendment, as proposed by the legislature, is:
Photo Identification Required for Voting
Secretary Ritchie has changed the title to:
Changes to In-Person & Absentee Voting & Voter Registration; Provisional Ballots
Again, Republicans are objecting to this change, claiming it is losing “what the core of the constitutional amendment is,” since it doesn’t actually mention voter ID — even though Ritchie’s title more completely describes the extent of the effects of the proposed amendment.
Republicans are taking Secretary Ritchie to court, in an attempt to prevent him from assigning titles to these ballot questions, as Minnesota law requires him to do. There apparently is fear that if these proposed amendments are accurately described on the ballot, voters would be less likely to vote for them. One can reasonably suspect, then, that even Republicans feel it is possible these proposed amendments will fail in the fall, particularly if they are given titles through the process required by Minnesota law rather than through the Republican rebranding machine (remember DOMA?).
November could see Minnesota becoming the first state where voters reject an attempt to prevent same-sex marriage. The ballot question can thus be expected to attract national attention, despite being a question from a state that often doesn’t get national attention.
Do you think the name change could affect the outcome? Do you agree with Secretary Ritchie’s titles? Do you agree with state Republicans that Ritchie’s actions are politically motivated? Were the titles recommended by the legislature politically motivated?
- Marriage amendment hit with political spin (wnd.com)
- Mark Ritchie strikes again (powerlineblog.com)
- Gay Marriage Foes Ask Minnesota Supreme Court To Overturn Title (ontopmag.com)
- Ritchie sets new marriage amendment ballot title (crookstontimes.com)
- Minnesota same-sex marriage opponents challenge title of ballot initiative (jurist.org)
- Mark Ritchie Sets New Marriage Amendment Ballot Title (kstp.com)
- Pettiness Of Minnesota Marriage Inequality Amendment Evident In Dispute Over Its Title (thinkprogress.org)
- Ritchie Accused Of ‘Political Meddling’ With Marriage & ID Amendments (minnesota.cbslocal.com)
- 40 Percent Of Democrats Expected To Vote For Minnesota Gay Marriage Ban (ontopmag.com)
- New titles of Minn. ballot measures stir backlash (crookstontimes.com)
About dcpetterson (186 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson