Minn. AG: Law permits change in ballot title

Minnesota's attorney general argued Monday that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie was acting within his power when he revised the title of a ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

The point is central to a brief submitted to the state Supreme Court by Attorney General Lori Swanson's office on behalf of fellow Democrat Ritchie, both of whom were accused of political mischief for swapping a chosen title for a more pointed one. The original title was "Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman." Ritchie's replacement reads: "Limiting the Status of Marriage to Opposite Sex Couples."

The court filing said Ritchie was following a law that "plainly empowers the Secretary to provide titles for all proposed constitutional ballot questions."

The case, set for arguments at the end of July, probably has a bearing on two proposed amendments on the November ballot. Ritchie also rewrote the wording of a title accompanying a measure to require photo IDs for voting. Backers of the photo identification requirement are contemplating a court challenge as well.

Supporters of defining marriage as between only a man and a woman petitioned to reverse Ritchie's move. Several legislative Republicans and the group, Minnesota for Marriage, joined in the legal action. They contend Ritchie overstepped his authority as chief elections administrator by refashioning the title. The brief defending Ritchie said the Legislature's attempt to provide a title "is without legal effect."

Experts say the title semantics could matter if the race is close because voters on the fence could be swayed by how the ballot measure appears.

The actual question posed to voters was not changed from the proposal lawmakers approved. In Minnesota, the Legislature decides what measures are put to voters without involvement of the governor, which in this instance left Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton unable to stop an amendment he opposed.

The brief, signed by Solicitor General Alan Gilbert, said the title for the November ballot question is accurate for an amendment fortifying an existing statutory ban on same-sex marriage. The proposed amendment would describe legally recognizable marriage as "only a union of one man and one woman."

The word "only" conveys a limitation, Gilbert wrote.

"The Secretary's title accurately reflects the `prohibition' that will be incorporated into the state constitution if the amendment passes," he wrote.

The lawmakers and group that brought the case have until Wednesday to submit a new brief to the court. Arguments are set for July 31.

A decision on the amendment's status is expected by late August because elections officials need time to design ballots early enough to accommodate absentee voters.