What will the ballot look like?

The state Supreme Court is deciding how the proposed constitutional amendments will be presented to voters.

by Bryna Godar

When the Minnesota Legislature approved the two amendment questions to be on this year’s ballot, it also dictated how the questions should appear to voters.

But in recent months, a series of lawsuits has left the issue in the hands of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

One suit deals with whether the voter ID ballot question is misleading and the other two tackle whether the secretary of state or the Legislature has the final authority to title the questions, the other of which would ban same-sex marriage.

The court is expected to rule by late August on all three cases to allow time for ballot printing.

“This is highly unusual,” said Timothy Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who studies judicial politics. “A typical ruling is going to take several months.”

Opinions vary on whether question and title wordings have an impact on voters’ choices.

A 2010 study by two political scientists found “strong evidence that ballot wording has the potential to significantly shift public opinion.”

However, it also found that a realistic election environment — where voters are exposed to new information and learn over the course of the campaign — will mitigate ballot framing effects.

“These are often complicated issues, and many voters will rely on the title to explain what’s contained in the amendment they’re voting for,” said William McGeveran, an associate professor at the University’s Law School.

McGeveran filed an amicus brief with other law professors in support of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s authority to title the amendment questions.

University of St. Thomas Law professor Teresa Collett is representing the majority leaders of the Senate and House in the title cases, arguing that the Legislature has the higher authority to propose a title.

“I think that the title can either accurately describe the most important impact of the law, or it can confuse voters,” she said.

If the title is too confusing or complex, she said, there’s an increased chance people won’t answer that question.

Unanswered amendment questions on a ballot count as “No” votes, according to Minnesota law.

“Both sides think it influences the vote, clearly, because proponents are getting so exercised about it,” McGeveran said.

The cases facing the Supreme Court are far from black-and-white. Each case has varied potential rulings.

“You have a lot of different ideas and approaches being explored in those oral arguments,” McGeveran said. “I think it’s really difficult to predict how that will all come out.”

Johnson said the cases throw the court into politics.

“I think we like our judiciary to be unbiased, we like it to be above the political fray, and when you get issues like voter ID and gay marriage, you put the judiciary right in the crossfire of the political fray.”