What are we to make of the sudden rush by Minnesota Republicans to place several constitutional amendments on the ballot this November? Quite simply, they are out of character with Minnesota’s history, true conservatism, and they demonstrate a contempt for the political process and a trivialization of the state’s Constitution.
Think about what we learned about constitutions in school. First, they are a general blueprint for the structure of the government. They describe the different officers or branches of government and how they are elected or organized. They define how a bill becomes a law, what powers each of the branches of government have (separation of powers), and the abilities of each to limit one another (checks and balances).
Second, constitutions not only declare the powers of government, but also limits on what it can do via a bill of rights. A bill of rights declares the rights of citizens, such as freedom of press or religion. Together, a constitution and a bill of rights define the rules of the game for governing. We think of a constitution as something more permanent, relatively stable, and not something that we generally amend unless there is a good reason to do so. This is at least how we think of our U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
State Constitutions such as Minnesota’s serve the same purposes, but also differ in several ways. Minnesota’s Bill of Rights offers more protection for individuals than found at the federal level. We protect freedom of conscience and privacy more vigorously than does the U.S. Bill of Rights. We also protect some rights — hunting and fishing, and peddling farm produce — that are not found at the federal level. We have constitutionalized our commitment to education, the construction and maintenance of a highway system, and support for the environment and the arts. Such rights reflect our culture and who we are.
119 amendments adopted in Minnesota
Finally, Minnesota’s Constitution is different from the federal one in the ways and numbers of times amended. The federal Constitution has been amended 27 times (including the Bill of Rights) and it is done by a combination of two-thirds votes in both Houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. Since ratification of the Minnesota Constitution in 1858, there have been 211 constitutional amendments proposed to the voters, with 119 adopted. Until 1898, constitutional amendments required a majority of both houses in the Legislature to propose them to the voters, with a simple majority of those voting on the amendments to approve them.
In 1898 the amending process was changed, thereafter requiring a qualified majority of all who voted in a specific election to ratify an amendment. Voting in the election, but not on the amendment, counts as a no vote. Amending the Constitution was made more difficult because critics claimed special interests and groups were using the process to further their politics. The argument also was that amending the Constitution should be done sparingly, and not used as a tool that substituted for normal lawmaking.
What does all this say about the rush to amend the Minnesota Constitution this year? Let’s look at the proposed amendments. Already on the ballot is one to ban same-sex marriage. Others would require a photo identification to vote, change the legislative voting procedure to make it harder to raise taxes, make it more difficult for poor women to terminate a pregnancy, and declare Minnesota to be a right-to-work state and thereby make it more burdensome for unions to collect dues. With the exception of the tax proposal, the rest are all policy and not about structure and process. They are about efforts to make permanent specific policy views of the Republican Party and its supporters. They are partisan preferences raised to the level of constitutional permanence.
Sure, this has happened in the past. Minnesota’s history reveals times when clusters of amendments are offered at the same time, often pushed by one party. But there is something unique in what the Republicans are doing now.
Rights usually expanded, not contracted
Minnesota history reveals that most amendments expand and do not contract rights. Of all amendments adopted, only one has restricted voting rights and five expanded them. The current amendments to require voter identification and limit the rights of privacy of poor women are out of character with Minnesota history.
Moreover, among the 50 adopted amendments dealing with finance, 17 authorized new taxes, bonding authority, or spending, and only six restricted or made it more difficult for public spending.
Minnesota has a tradition of facilitating government investment to help the state. The current proposal to make it more difficult to tax is out of step with that tradition, and it runs Minnesota down the road toward the same problems encountered by California and Colorado, which adopted similar proposals years ago and which have contributed to their current fiscal problems. Third, the right-to-work amendment restricts rights of unions and it aims to make constitutional another policy that best should be left to the legislative process. Overall, these amendments are out of step with a Minnesota tradition of respecting and enlarging rights and supporting individuals.
But more important, what is upsetting about the amendments is that they display contempt for the political process. Instead of trying to use the normal legislative process to push these ideas, they want to bypass it. Because they cannot win by normal politics they want to take their political bat and ball and go home. In effect, they cannot win under the normal rules so they are changing the rules.
A go-for-broke strategy
It is, moreover, a go-for-broke strategy: If we cannot win by normal politics let us try to do so by way of the Constitution and then if we are ousted in November, we have cemented in place policies that live beyond our majorities in St. Paul. Moreover, this contempt for individual rights and disrespect for our constitutional tradition is the very opposite of what conservatism is about. True conservatives should be loath to change the Constitution in this way.
Finally, what is disturbing about this kind of politics is that it not only plays to prejudice but it interjects divisive social issues into constitutional battles. Amending the Constitution should be done for noble reasons, not cynical ploys to pander to constituencies or make permanent partisan preferences. Minnesota is a better state than that.