Ask a 'sotan: Why can't Minnesota voters bring an issue to the ballot?

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Jalisa Moore puts a stack of ballots into the counting machine.
Jalisa Moore, a volunteer for early ballot counting, puts a stack of ballots into the counting machine at Hennepin County 701 Building in November.
Jiwon Choi | MPR News 2018

Updated: 9:05 a.m. | Posted: 4 a.m.

Ask a 'sotan is an occasional series exploring questions from curious Minnesotans about our state. Have a question about life in Minnesota? Ask it here.

Voters in Minnesota can vote on state constitutional amendments whenever the state Legislature proposes a change.

But the state does not have a system for voters to directly add a statute or constitutional amendment on their ballot.

Why don't Minnesotans have the right to vote bills directly into laws through a ballot initiative? Has the state always been this way?
— Judith Johnson, St. Paul

"The easiest answer is the constitution doesn't provide for it," said Peter Wattson, a former counsel for the Minnesota Senate. "The constitution gives all power to the Legislature and the Legislature can put questions on the ballot. But our constitution does not permit the [voter led] initiative."

The Legislature has the power to offer a question, like in 2008 when voters decided to approve the Legacy Amendment to increase sales and use taxes by three-eighths percent. But citizens can't sign a petition to ask to put an amendment or statute on the ballot.

There are 24 states in the country that allow some aspect of a direct ballot initiative.

Some allow voters to approve a new statute through a ballot initiative, while others only allow a referendum on a state law through ballot initiatives.

Many of the states that allow ballot initiatives approved the process during the Progressive Era of American politics, during the early 1900s. The first state to allow a ballot initiative or referendum was South Dakota in 1898.

The Minnesota Legislature offered voters two chances to approve a ballot initiative amendment to the state constitution, the first in 1914 and the second in 1916. Both failed to pass, though they were close.

Wattson said that a change to the constitution, passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 1897 and approved by a vote in 1898, made it harder for state amendments to pass. Before that, it only required the majority of those who voted on the question to pass. After 1898, it required the majority of voters who participated in the election to approve the amendment change.

If a voter leaves a blank on constitutional amendments, that blank ballot counts as a "no" vote. So while the amendment at the time had more "yes" votes to beat "no" votes, it didn't have enough to beat ballots without a vote and "no" votes.

Minnesota voters had another chance to adopt a constitutional amendment to allow voter initiatives and referendums in 1980.

Again, the vote was close, but it failed.

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