Q&A: What a 'yes' or 'no' vote means for the marriage amendment

Minnesota voters will find two proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot on Tuesday. One would require photo identification in order to vote. A second would take the state's existing law against same sex marriage and place it in the state constitution.

Minnesota Public Radio reporter Sasha Aslanian, who has been covering the debate over the marriage amendment, discusses with All Things Considered frequently asked questions about the amendment.

Tom Crann: It sounds like voters are still confused about exactly what this amendment would do. It's not an up or down vote on same sex marriage, right?

Sasha Aslanian: Right. I'm continually reminded as I'm out covering this that some people think this amendment is a vote on same-sex marriage. It's not. People have said "I want gays and lesbians to be able to marry, so I'm voting yes," or, "I'm opposed to same-sex marriage so I'm voting no." That's not what a yes vote or a no vote would do. A yes vote adds a definition of marriage as only between a man and a woman to the state constitution.

Crann: What does a no vote do?

Aslanian: A no vote means the man-woman definition will not be added to the state constitution. It does not change the state law that is on the books, which is that only heterosexual couples can marry. If the amendment were to fail, at some future date the legislature or the courts could legalize same sex marriage.

Crann: Marriage is also on the ballot in three other states. What's happening there?

Aslanian: Washington State, Maryland and Maine are all taking up or down votes on same-sex marriage. Those are states where their legislatures and governors have signed off on same-sex marriage. In Washington and Maryland, voters got enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot for a possible repeal. In Maine, it's a rematch. In 2009, Maine voters repealed same-sex marriage in that state. This year, advocates of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples felt they had enough support to put it on the ballot and they're confident that this time, voters will support same-sex marriage.

Six states plus the District of Columbia currently allow same-sex marriage. All of those came through legislatures or the courts. If any of these states vote to approve same-sex marriage, it would be the first time it's come through a popular vote.

Crann: Put Minnesota's ballot in context for us.

Aslanian: If Minnesotans vote yes on the marriage amendment, we'd be the 31st state to add a constitutional amendment blocking same-sex marriage. The first state to do this was Alaska in 1998. The most recent was North Carolina in May of this year.

Some political scientists point out the margins of victory on these constitutional amendments have been getting smaller, and public opinion has been shifting rapidly on this issue, making it more likely these amendments will start to lose at some point. The question is whether Minnesota will be that state. If Minnesotans vote down the amendment, it would be the first state to do so. There's a small asterisk by this statement because in 2006, Arizona voters rejected an amendment that would have interfered with heterosexual domestic partners. When it was rewritten more narrowly to only affect same-gendered couples, it passed there in 2008.

Crann: Another thing that is different in Minnesota are blank ballots. What happens if a voter leaves the amendment question blank?

Aslanian: A blank counts as a no vote. Minnesota sets a little higher threshold to change the constitution: More than 50 percent of ballots cast must actively mark yes that they want to amend the state constitution in order for that to happen. The only way to reverse a constitutional amendment is by passing another constitutional amendment.

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