Asking voters to decide issues that should be addressed at the state Capitol undermines the checks and balances built into our legislative process and diminishes the purpose of the state’s Constitution. That alone is overwhelming reason for citizens to reject both constitutional amendments on the ballot this November.
Minnesota’s Constitution was drafted for two reasons. First, it defines the structure of state government. Second, it spells out citizens’ rights, which place limits on government’s power to intervene in people’s lives.
Both amendments on the ballot this fall would only serve to disenfranchise groups of Minnesotans. One amendment would ban marriage between gays and lesbians while the other would require voters to show a state-issued photo ID to participate in elections. Proponents of both amendments are relying on exaggerated threats to win support for their causes.
Supporters of the marriage amendment believe marriage should apply only to one man and one woman, arguing that same-sex unions threaten the sanctity of such unions. They also argue that the primary purpose of marriage is to have children and that government has an interest in protecting children.
But there is no evidence that same-sex marriages have any impact on other families or relationships. And although producing children is not the sole reason for marriage, studies have shown that marriage is indeed good for children. The commitment tends to result in more stability and responsibility in the adults involved, gay or straight.
And let’s be clear. Even if the amendment is rejected, as it should be, same-sex marriage will remain illegal in Minnesota, at least for now. While the Legislature could eventually legalize it, as a growing number of states have already done, the issue has become increasingly less controversial as time goes on. Twenty years from now, most Minnesotans will likely look back on this period and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Likewise, supporters of the voter ID amendment have made much ado about nothing. There is practically no evidence of voter impersonation in Minnesota elections, which is the only type of voter fraud that the photo ID requirement would prevent. The most common form of improper voting is by convicted felons who have not had their voting rights restored— and it’s usually the result of honest error not a calculated attempt to cheat.
The amendment does nothing to prevent felons from voting— but it is likely to make it more difficult for many other Minnesotans — including seniors, veterans, college students and low-income adults — to participate in elections because they may lack the type of ID demanded by the state. The details on the ID requirements are still unclear and asking voters to okay something before they even know the particulars is outrageous.
Voters should be equally distressed by the Legislature’s naked attempt to circumvent the traditional legislative process by using the state’s Constitution. This year, Republicans had proposals for nearly two -dozen constitutional amendments, although only two made it as far as the ballot.
Both measures on the ballot could have, and should have, been handled through the normal legislative process. Instead, Republican legislators went to the Constitution to avoid a veto of their policy bills by Gov. Mark Dayton. We have checks and balances for a purpose, and this isn’t how new law is supposed to be made in Minnesota.
Over its history, the Minnesota Constitution has been amended 119 times. Some of those actions — such as abolishing the state treasurer position — could only be achieved through amending the constitution. But far too many could have been addressed through the normal legislative process.
Part of the problem is that Minnesota’s threshold for passing an amendment is lower than many states. It only requires a simple majority in the Legislature to approve a constitutional question. Many states require a super-majority before a constitutional question can go on the ballot.
State Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, proposed just such a measure for Minnesota in 2009 when he authored a bill to require a three-fifths majority in the Legislature before putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot. The proposal died in committee.
It’s time to revisit raising the bar. Ideally, only actions that can’t be addressed through the normal legislative process should be considered for constitutional amendments. Our legislative representatives have more time to study, review and debate the issues before coming to a thoughtful decision. That’s what we elect them to do.
Turning our state’s constitution into a scrap yard for legislation that can’t make it through the normal channels cheapens the value of a document designed to protect our freedoms, not encumber them.