Opponents pummel Sec. of State Ritchie over amendment titles

Mark Ritchie
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, in a file photo from May 18, 2010. Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson are being sued by supporters of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, because of his decision to change the title of the ballot question voters will see in the November election.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

What's in a name? Well, it may be the difference between winning and losing, according to supporters and opponents of two referenda heading for the ballot in November.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has now renamed both of them.

First, he renamed the marriage amendment "Limiting The Status Of Marriage To Opposite Sex Couples." It had been called "Recognition of marriage solely between one man and one woman."

The most recent change came this afternoon, when Ritchie decided to rename the state's proposed voter ID amendment, designated by its legislative sponsors "Photo Identification Required for Voting."

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Ritchie decided to rename the amendment "Changes to In-Person & Absentee Voting & Voter Registration; Provisional Ballots." Supporters quickly cried foul.

"It is not being accurate as far as what the core of the constitutional amendment is," complained state Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, the measure's sponsor. "It's not being honest with the voters."

Kiffmeyer said the title of the question put to voters should at least make reference to an identification requirement. She called the new name a political revision, and said it might have a negative effect on the measure's prospects at the polls.

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Kiffmeyer said Ritchie, who defeated her to become secretary of state in 2006, is betraying the objectivity Minnesotans expected of the office.

"It's just very disappointing. You're the one who counts the ballots. You're the one that administrates and oversees all that," she said of the secretary of state. "So, it weakens that confidence in that position."

But critics of the ballot question welcomed the change. American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota executive director Chuck Samuelson said the Voter ID ballot question itself is misleading. The ACLU has filed suit to remove it from the ballot. The suit alleges that the ballot question didn't make any reference to the amendment's potential effect on Minnesota's tradition of same-day voter registration or other potential effects.

"This title is different from the one, and more complete from the one that the Legislature put forward," Samuelson said.

Ritchie declined to discuss why he changed the original title, set in the enabling legislation passed by lawmakers earlier this year.

But in an interview with MPR News last month, Ritchie said that the Legislature isn't supposed to name constitutional amendment questions.

"[Minnesota]] statute requires the secretary of state to provide titles for constitutional amendments with the approval of the attorney general," he said then. "The big things that we think about is are we being complete and accurate so that some voters will read that, and then that'll be some of the important information they'll receive and then there'll be a ballot question that will be other important information that they receive."

Ritchie's decision to rename the voter ID amendment also came just hours after 15 lawmakers and proponents of a same-sex marriage ban filed suit against Ritchie for giving their proposal a new title for the November ballot.

Ritchie said two weeks ago that measure will be titled," Limiting The Status Of Marriage To Opposite Sex Couples." The Republican-controlled Legislature had named it "Recognition of marriage solely between one man and one woman."

At a press conference, state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, criticized the new wording.

"Those words are definitely considered negative and misleading, and I believe they're created to sway the voter," he said.

Opponents of the marriage amendment say the new name is appropriate.

"It's an accurate title," said Kate Brickman, a spokeswoman for Minnesotans United for All Families. "However, at the end of the day, Minnesotans will vote on the question at hand."

Advocates for the Voter ID amendment say they're already consulting with attorneys to file a legal challenge that parallels the marriage amendment lawsuit. Both could be headed for fast-track consideration by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Ritchie says the language has to be ready by Aug. 27 to print ballots in time for the November election.