Tag Archives: Minnesota Constitution

Armchair Access to Minnesota’s Past

Members of the Minnesota Legislature will be back in their districts this week.  If you have a chance you might want to ask your member just which Minnesota Constitution they propose to revise this session.  There are two, you know.

The mystery of Minnesota’s two Constitutions is just one historical quirk told in digital format on podcasts produced and posted by the Minnesota Historical Society.  There is a library of podcasts and slideshows within arm’s reach of history buffs and Minnesotans with a mere scintilla of curiosity about their state’s history.

To unravel the curious facts about the two Constitutions, click here.    Are you curious about government interference in citizens’ morality?  Check The Road to Prohibition podcast.  If you’re more interested in corporate Minnesota  you’ll enjoy learning about How Minnesota Changed Breakfast or Don’t Say Underwear, Say Munsingwear.

There’s something for everyone.  Click here for a digital Introduction to the MHS podcast collection.  Then settle back in your favorite armchair and plan to spend way too much time engrossed in the podcasts and the paths they’ll lead you into the riches of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Voting Procedures Still on the Public Agenda at State and National Levels

Voter registration, an issue that some had optimistically assumed was resolved two decades ago by the  National Voter Registration Act  has emerged – no, erupted – as a major issue, a mighty weapon wielded by forces that are only too well aware that the place to stifle the democratic process is the voting booth.  Tinkering with the electoral process has taken various forms shaped to the vulnerability of the venue.   In Minnesota, the pressure point was the Voter ID Amendment to the State Constitution.  Originally portrayed as a benign detail the pernicious proposal was soundly trounced by the electorate in the last election.

An unintended consequence of that ill-fated rush to exclude has awakened Minnesotans to the importance of voters’ rights and inspired elected officials scrutinize the details with unaccustomed care.

The first legislative measures to take stage center are related proposals to allow early voting and to eliminate a requirement that people have a valid excuse to vote by absentee ballot.   Thirty two states offer some form of early voting in which there is no requirement for a valid excuse.  In some cases the votes are counted immediately; in others votes are not tabulated until election day and voters have a chance to change their vote. Many Minnesotans consider early voting a non-issue since they have assumed that Minnesota has had early voting in place all along.

The proposal now before the state Legislature would allow Minnesota voters to vote up to 15 days before an election.  On-site registration would still be available following the same requirements as are currently in place for Election Day registration.  While opponents fear easy early voting gives too much power to parties and voter fraud, proponents of absentee voting argue that it is more convenient for voters and that it would shorten the lines on Election Day.  Governor Dayton has not weighed in except to be very clear about the fact that any decision will have to have bipartisan support.

With heightened awareness of the import of the electoral process per se, Minnesotans may be interested to learn more about what is happening in other states and at the national level.  The Brennan Center for Justice which has long studied voting practices recently produced a major proposal to “modernize voter registration and bring America’s election system into the 21st Century.”  The plan, known as the Voter Registration Modernization (VRM), is the centerpiece of the Voter Empowerment Act introduced last month by a raft of legislators and prominently mentioned in the President’s State of the Union Address.

Those who hatched their nefarious plans to skew the American electoral process by tinkering with the “details” may find that shining light on those details has illuminated the gaps in a system that is now enjoying unprecedented attention.

Minnesotans out-voted every state in the nation in the last election.  We captured the national headlines with defeat of the Voter ID Amendment, once on its way to easy passage.  We have reason to be proud of our record.  We have a concomitant responsibility to follow what is happening in the State Legislature and in Congress.  We know from experience what it takes to keep a collective eye on the electoral process — constant vigilance is the price of liberty.

Advocates Offer Powerful Exploration of Voter ID Amendment

The Advocates for Human Rights to Discuss Civil Rights and Voter Disenfranchisement at World Premiere of Appomattox at the Guthrie Theater 

Minneapolis, MN (September 19, 2012): The Advocates for Human Rights will join the Guthrie Theater on October 2, 2012 for a performance of Appomattox, a new play about freedom, human rights, and race. Robin Phillips, executive director of The Advocates, will moderate an expert panel after the performance addressing current issues of civil rights and the Voter ID ballot initiative in Minnesota. 

The two-act play begins in April 1865, with Ulysses S. Grant meeting Robert E. Lee to sign the treaty to end the bloodiest war in U.S. history. The days preceding the signing are depicted through the eyes of President Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary, Julia Grant, Mary Custis Lee, and others. The second act opens in February 1965, when St. James Baptist Church deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson is shot by an Alabama state trooper during a peaceful protest for civil rights. The play then follows President Lyndon Johnson and his push to pass the Voting Rights Act through Congress.  

“The arts are a natural place to discuss human rights issues,” says Phillips. “Appomattox addresses civil and human rights issues that have shaped the United States throughout its history, including the right to vote. Today in Minnesota, the right of citizens to vote is once again threatened. The proposed Voter ID amendment on the ballot in Minnesota would, for the first time in the state’s history, narrow suffrage. Voting is a human right, not a privilege. The Advocates for Human Rights opposes the amendment.” 

The proposed Voter ID amendment would narrow suffrage because many thousands of Minnesotans, who are currently eligible to vote, do not have a government-issued photo ID. According to the Minnesota League of Women Voters, those least likely to have a government-issued photo ID include: 

·    18 percent of elderly citizens do not have a government-issued photo ID.

·    15 percent of voters earning less than $35,000 a year do not have a photo ID.

·    18 percent of citizens aged 18-24 do not have a government-issued ID with their current address and name.

·    10 percent of voters with disabilities do not have a photo ID.

·    25 percent of African-American citizens of voting age do not have a current, government-issued ID. 

For more information please contact:

Robin Phillips                                                    Sarah Herder

Executive Director                                            Director of Education   

(612) 746-0859                                               (612) 746-4691

rphillips@advrights.org                                     sherder@advrights.org 

# # # 

The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Minneapolis, is dedicated to the promotion of internationally-recognized human rights. To learn more visit theadvocatesforhumanrights.org.


Truth Lurks Behind Semantics as Court Deliberates Who Names Constitutional Amendments

It’s plain hokum. If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em. It’s an old political trick. But this time it won’t work ~ Harry S. Truman

We can hope that HST was prescient and that the thinly-veiled effort to influence the turnout of the next election – and those that follow – will wither under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court and the informed caution of Minnesota voters.  The Uptake coverage of yesterday’s proceedings captured a process that seemed to confuse, even irk, the jurists;  the sparring among opponents certainly confused this viewer.

The issue on the Court’s docket this week is not on the wording of the two proposed amendments but specifically on whether the Legislature or the Executive Branch (i.e. the Secretary of State) has the authority and responsibility to prescribe the wording on the ballot that will face Minnesota voters in November.  A sub-issue stems from Governor Dayton’s veto of the original legislation initiated by the IR majority;  this raises the question whether amendment titles are considered ordinary legislation, subject to gubernatorial veto, or if they come under the Legislature’s exclusive power to propose Constitution amendments for voter approval.

The Court’s questions were focused and piercing.  At times the members of the Court got a tad testy at the evasive maneuvers of the attorneys.

For example, Attorney Jordan Lorence, representing the IR lawmakers and other amendment advocates, argued at one point that the fact that Ritchie had not edited the title of the 2008 Legacy amendment indicates that leaving the legislative language intact is normal practice.  Solicitor General Alan Gilbert, representing Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson, reminded the Court and observers that the 1919 law clearly designated the Secretary of State as the authority responsible for the ballot language. Gilbert projected that disruption of that process would put into question nearly a century of constitutional amendments to the Minnesota Constitution..

The courtroom drama masks the real issue that lurks in the wings in this and several other states. Republicans who hold the majority in the Minnesota Legislature see legislation by Constitutional Amendment as a viable option – at least for the duration of their tenure.

One change that was clearly on the minds of some of the members of the Court would be to resolve the current dilemma by dropping or postponing the proposed amendments altogether.  Given the enormity of the policy implications that echo the judgment faced by Solomon himself this does seem like an option.

The Court has indicated that a ruling will be forthcoming within a month, still leaving the four weeks preparation time the Secretary of State’s office and local organizers will need to implement changes as necessary.


To review the July 31 happenings in the Minnesota Supreme Court click on The Uptake’s video coverage.  Meanwhile, the individual amendments (nicknamed for now the “Marriage Amendment” and the “Voter ID Amendment” are best tracked as distinct issues, separated at birth in the Legislature, joined as they face the Judicial Branch as a clash between the Executive and Legislative branches of state government.


Minnesota Constitution-Amendments that balance continuity and change

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.                                                                Abraham Maslow

 The proliferation of amendment proposals on the November 2012 ballot suggest this might be a mantra for the IR legislature.  The nails of Voter ID and same-sex marriage have long pierce the political skin of the right wing.  The Governor’s hammer and feisty DFL opposition have left no choice but to bring out the cudgel and start hammering.  Now it’s up to the voters.  Once again, a bit of history exposes how the amendment hammer has been brandished in Minnesota history.

Writing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in January 2012, journalist Jim Ragsdale warns that it’s “hard to undo” an amendment that has been blessed by the voters.  Policy and budget decisions are normally embedded in laws passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.  Laws can be changed when external factors intrude or political tides shift.  Amending the constitution, while allowing direct decisions by the people, locks in changes that are much harder revisit, much less change.   In Minnesota the process is straightforward:  If both houses of the Legislature approve a proposed constitutional amendment it goes directly onto the general election ballot, a relatively easy first stop..  In Wisconsin and Iowa,  Ragsdale notes a proposed amendment must be approved by two successive legislative sessions, with an election intervening, before it goes to the voters.  Some other states require a ‘super majority’ legislative vote.

 That puts a heavy burden on Minnesota voters.  Earlier in the current process, when legislators pushed for Constitutional amendments, Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem (IR-Rochester) advised that “it does place an additional responsibility on us to be cautious, to be careful, to understand what the Constitution is for, to enter into these decisions with due consideration.”

So now it’s up to the voters to fully comprehend the proposed amendments and the possible trajectory of an approved Constitutional amendment.  As always, a look back at history can help.

Until 1898, the Constitution was amended by a simple majority of both houses of the Legislature, then ratified by a simple majority of the voters at the next general election. The total number of voters who cast any ballot at the election did not determine whether an amendment was approved or rejected.  In 1898 the rules changed – by a Constitutional amendment nicknamed the Brewer’s amendment – so that a Constitutional amendment, once approved by a simple of majority of both chambers of the Legislature at one session, had to be ratified by a majority of all the electors voting at the election whether or not the voter expressed an aye or nay on the proposal.  Historian Betty Kane, author of a definitive history Constitutional amendments, writes that “before 1889 it was ‘easy to get amendments proposed, and easy to get them ratified.  Once the state imposed stricter standard via the so-called ‘brewers’ amendment’ of 1898, the adoption of amendments dropped to less than one-third of its previous level.”

Over the decades some 213 proposed amendments have been made their way to the ballot box; 120 have passed.   In conjunction with Sunshine Week 2012 I dipped gingerly into the history amendments to the Minnesota Constitution.  Thanks to the resources of the Legislative Reference Library I got a glimmer of just how that hammer has been put to the test over the years.  Even a quick review of that history gives a voter pause – at the whims of Minnesota voters and the long-term consequences of their votes.

 During the past session legislators grappled with a jumble of proposed constitutional amendments that now present voters with two monumental opportunities to express their opposition or support for the Voter ID and the Marriage Amendment.  Information and misinformation abound.  In the end, voters must listen with care, consider the source, and way the consequences  — the goal is not to “win” but to assure that the Constitutional amendments achieve the challenge put forth by Betty Kane, the challenge to balance the forces of continuity and change.

Minnesota’s Voter ID Amendment – The Trojan Horse Has Left the Gate

Minnesotans are accustomed to a fair and honest election process that encourages citizens to vote.  Under the direction of the Secretary of State, the election supported by a host of advocacy groups ranging from the venerable League of Women Voters and vigorous political parties to groups representing newly-enfranchised high school and college students and immigrants who hail from elsewhere but now call Minnesota home, citizens with physical or language barriers, those who are homeless, homebound, elderly, impoverished or who live outside the social or political loop.

The right to participate in this open process that most Minnesotans enjoy – and in which too few participate – is hard won by state officials, advocacy groups, the faith community, school groups and promoters of lifelong voting have long taken pride in the participatory process which they have collectively wrought.

Like the people of Troy, we sleep in the smug confidence that we are at peace.  With alarm, we are slowly waking to the harsh reality that, as State Representative Ryan Winkler metaphorically warns, the Trojan Horse is at the gate.

At this writing, the challenge is to hold the Trojan Horse at bay.  Advocacy groups are challenging the action of the IR Legislature to put the Voter ID Amendment on the November ballot.  This week the challenge has moved to the Supreme Court which has no option but to take it on.  Many hold out hope that the Amendment will not make it to the ballot.

And so we slumber on

Meanwhile, Amendment supporters push on with their impassioned case for passage.  The Voter ID Amendment, they maintain, will prevent the unfit – immigrants, felons, the homeless, elderly Minnesotans who have never had an ID, and those who don’t deserve the privilege anyway – to step aside and make way for Real Minnesotans, i.e. those who have a valid state issued ID.

Some of those who proposed and many of the legislators who bought their misinformed stories of malfeasance, may think they are doing what’s best for Minnesotans – though they  may have experienced a moment of cognitive dissonance as proponent Dan McGrath advised a Moral Majority audience that the “Voter ID is something that the polls show people want.  [Opponents] are afraid of the will of the people.  They’re afraid to let people vote.”

Intrepid opponents of the Voter ID Amendment will heed the ancient admonition: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. (Though the aphorism may be politically incorrect in these troubled times, it works here as the mythological metaphor.)

From the perspective of opponents, the Voter ID ruckus offers a “teachable moment”, a time when people on both sides of the issue recognize that this sound and fury must signify something.  Voter promotion efforts – get-out-the-vote and voter registration – present untapped opportunities to inform and educate citizens about the struggle for voting rights, the challenges and the ways in which the state-issued Voter ID is a potential threat to citizens’ exercise of their rights.  Some possibilities to ponder:

  • Recognize upfront that prior censorship is a powerful restraint on nonprofit organizations, the media, even the business community.  Encourage and facilitate their inclusion of nonpartisan discussions of the election process and citizen rights on their programs and in their print and digital publications.  Political discourse need not be partisan.
  • Identify and work with individuals and organizations that reach those who may be disenfranchised by the Amendment – houses of worship, colleges, senior citizen centers, the disabled community, labor unions, youth groups, outreach efforts to felons who have paid their debt, the homeless who cannot obtain a state-issued ID  – not to mention immigrant communities in desperate need of affirmative action.  Ethnic groups that share an interest gather often and everywhere – leaders need programs that meet their constituents’ needs.  Carpe diem!
  • Monitor what’s happening in the courts, starting with oral arguments now set for July 17.  The Minnesota Supreme Court has asked the state to deal with the imponderable – to change or to quash the proposed Amendment.  Circle July 17 on the calendar.
  • Pressure the media to face the tide of misinformation with solid investigative reporting and nonpartisan, unbiased coverage of voter validation and other issues related to the electoral process.  Contribute corrections and alternative views via the editorial page.
  • Explain in concrete terms that the teams of Trojan Horses are at states throughout the nation.  Florida is – and has been –a bellwether.
  • Stress the high cost of Voter ID implementation – costs that not only preclude those who cannot afford the personal burden but which impose a heavy burden on the general public.
  • Factor in the complexity of barriers to obtaining a state-issued ID –e.g. the need for rides to the polls, dependence on public transit, or reliance on scheduled transit for homebound or institutionalized individuals, language differences, work schedules, child care, physical challenges…The list goes on – talk with those who know the territory.
  • Share the resources within reach.  Start with the Office of the Secretary of State, a position currently held by Mark Ritchie, a voter advocate at heart and the individual ultimately responsible for implementing the process determined by the Legislature. Check out other resources including, but not limited to, Common Cause, ACLU of Minnesota, the Federal Elections Legal Network,  League of Women Voters of Minnesota and Jewish Community Action.
  • Tell the concerned to check out more proximate resources including the rich menu of programs and publications related to voter rights and sources of information and assistance.
  • Get creative – here the prize may go to MPIRG, the student activist group at the U of M that has proposed two incentives to student voters – that students get an excused absence to vote OR that the University declare Election Day a free day at the University.
  • If, in spite of the erstwhile efforts of concerned Minnesotans, the Voter ID amendment should get the voters’ nod, maintain the pace!   There is cold comfort in the reality that the devil is in the details, details to be crafted by the Legislature in the year to come. It’s not over till the last legislator signs – Keep up the pressure to defend the rights of every Minnesota citizen.


Minnesota Constitution – A Work in Progress

It’s Sunshine Week, the annual shout out to open government – a great way to celebrate is to dig deep into some of the information by and about state and local government.  Though for the most part focus is on open meetings and data access, public information resources in libraries, archives and museums throughout the state – and increasingly online – offer a rich record of Minnesotans through the decades.  An armchair dip into the online resources will expand your definition of access to government information.  Warning – you may lose yourself in the stories.

Because we are currently floundering in information and misinformation about State Constitutional amendments, I took a mental dip into the historic records of the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, one of the state’s information treasures.  It came as no surprise to learn that staff at LRL had collected and preserved everything anyone could ever want to know about the history of  proposed amendments to the State Constitution whether the amendment was adopted or rejected.

Suffice to say, since the first amendment was proposed and approved there have been scores of proposals.  That first amendment, passed May 1, 1858, was to establish state government.   That same year the people of Minnesota adopted an amendment to authorize a $5 million railroad loan – an amendment the voters repealed two years later in an amendment that required popular approval of tax to pay railroad bonds.  The more things change…

In a different vein in 1865 and again in 1867 Minnesotans rejected proposed amendments to authorize Negroes to vote, an amendment that finally passed in 1868.  By 1875 Minnesotans authorized the legislature to grant women suffrage in school affairs – the school board members probably had a hankering for pie and coffee at their meetings.  Two years later Minnesota males rejected a proposal amendment to authorize women to vote in local elections.

The Governor was authorized to use the veto pen with passage1876 of a 1876 amendment to allow the chief executive to veto appropriation bills.  Next came an era of government organization.  Voters approved amendments to establish biennial sessions (1877), to extend terms of representatives to two and six years (1877) and to prohibit special legislation on certain subjects (1881), while they rejected a proposal to regulate compensation of legislators in 1881.

In 1886 the issue was the provision of loans to state school funds to counties and school districts.  By 1896 voters approved an amendment to permit cities, towns and villages as well as counties and school districts, to borrow school and university funds.   Tax issues took precedence as voters approved of inheritance taxes (1896)  and taxing large corporations (1896) while rejecting several tax-related initiatives.

In 1898 Minnesotans wisely approved an amendment to permit women to vote for and serve on library boards.

An initiative and referendum proposal was rejected by handily rejected by voters in 1914 and again in 1916.  In 1918 Minnesotans narrowly rejected an amendment to prohibit the manufacture and the sale of liquor.

Minnesota voters rejected a 1952 proposal to clarify the meaning of who shall be entitled to vote.  Four-year terms for constitutional offers were approved in 1958. That same year voters approved three to one to prescribe the place where a person moving to a new precinct within 30 days before an election may vote, eliminating obsolete provisions on the voting rights of persons of Indian blood.   By the same margin Minnesotans approved a 1960 amendment to provide for succession to the office of government to provide for continuity of government emergencies caused by enemy attack.

Many Minnesotans voting in the 2012 election will recall casting a ballot, or being confused by some more recent proposals including authorization the 1988 of a state-operated lottery;  in 1990 the vote was to dedicate 40% of the lottery proceeds to the environment  and natural resources.  That amendment covered the trust fund until 2001; in 1998 the environmental trust fund, expanded to include preservation of the state’s arts and cultural heritage and increased ales and use tax was approved by a huge majority; by 2008 voters were more divided but approved what is known today as the Heritage Fund.

These are just a new of the two hundred plus amendments rejected or approved  by Minnesotans since 1858.  Topics of proposed amendment run the gamut – government organization to taxes to the courts, the railroads, farms, highways, lotteries and prohibition.  This year it’s the Marriage Amendment.

Lots more on the history and the ratification process on the LRL website.  This take on the state’s bumpy constitutional history offers an intriguing mental excursion for Sunshine Week and an informed approach to the 2012 election.  Click on the LRL website and explore how Minnesotans have spoken up on a host of issues over the decades.