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Using amendments to tear up the Constitution — or not

Constitutions are supposed to represent basic principles that vast majority of citizens will support, defend, or even fight and die for — adding controversial amendments that divide rather than unify undermines them.

Our constitutions in the US, both State and Federal, have a built in facility for amendments. This means we can change our constitutions, but it also means we can destroy ourselves. Constitutions aren’t about winning arguments or culture wars. Constitutions are foundational documents that glue nations and states together. Our democracy lets you ignore that fact, but you do so at your own peril.

Earlier in the year the Republican dominated legislature in MN plunked two proposed constitutional amendments on the MN ballot for November. One is a marriage amendment that prevents anyone other than one man and one woman from having a legally recognized marriage.  The other requires voters show a certified photo ID at the polls on Election Day in order to cast a ballot that will be counted on Election Day.

Neither of these amendments belongs on the ballot or in the MN constitution.  Aside from the lack of merit either amendment can muster, they are both divisive and polarizing initiatives that violate the very principles that constitutions are based upon.  Regardless how you or I might personally feel about either one of these amendments neither you nor I represent an overwhelming majority. The polls show support for either one of these amendment running between 40% -60%. A clear majority would be 75% or greater. However in theory 50% plus one vote can change the constitution.

The problem with changing a constitution with one vote or even 1% of the vote is that constitutions are supposed to be inherently unifying documents that pull states and nations together. Almost by definition no proposed amendment should be controversial. Constitutions are supposed to represent basic principles that vast majority of citizens will support, defend, or even fight and die for. If you start adding controversial amendments that divide rather than unify, you undermine the whole concept of a constitution. Divisive amendments turn constitutions into weapons rather than protections, they become a cause of disintegration rather than integration, weapons against some minority rather than a shield against the majority or the state. The last time we had a constitution like that we almost died as a nation in a civil war.

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The problem with the marriage amendment is that it seeks to build discrimination and intolerance into the constitution. The Marriage amendment is institutionalized bigotry because no matter how you personally feel about gay marriage, this amendment seeks to protect a group that is not being discriminated against (everyone in the state in who is not gay) from a minority that represents no threat. This turns the whole idea of a democratic constitution on its head. This amendment asks us to believe that somehow the majority of people in the state are suffering such crushing oppression at the hands of gay and lesbians that we need constitutional protection. It also elevates an entirely personal matter (who you and I marry) to a constitutional level and converts this personal choice into a government concern. This is not how you glue a society together, this is how you create an oppressive government.

The photo ID amendment will restrict and prevent thousands of legitimate votes in order to prevent a non-existent problem. Thousands of senior, students, and people living in various shelters will not be allowed to cast a vote that will get counted on Election Day. They will get new “provisional” ballots many of which will never get counted despite having been cast by perfectly legitimate voters.  No one is saying the current system is flawless but the fact is that the only possible type of fraud that a photo could prevent is voter impersonation, and there is not one documented case of voter impersonation in the state of Minnesota. Of the ten cases of voter fraud being investigated in MN since 2008 (yes ten cases out of more than 4 million votes cast) eight of them were felons who voted illegally.

Listen: in 2009 the MN legislature passed (on an overwhelmingly bi-partisan vote) a law that would have required that a variety of state agencies share data with the Secretary of State’s office. That data would have given the Secretary of State the ability to flag felons and others illegal voters during the registration process and prevent them from voting. Had that law gone into effect we would have had zero felons casting votes in 2010 and 2012. Governor Pawlenty vetoed that law. Why? If Republicans are really that worried about fraud why not eliminate 80% of it? Why veto an uncontroversial law that would prevent 80% of the fraud and submit a controversial amendment that will prevent 0% of the fraud? Obviously this isn’t about fraud.

The Photo ID amendment does a couple things that the law Pawlenty vetoed didn’t do. For one thing instead of targeting illegal voters it creates obstacles for legal voters. Even in some cases where a voter is legal and registered with a valid photo ID they will be forced to cast a provisional ballot instead of a regular ballot. If you haven’t registered 30 days prior to the election your valid photo ID will not get your voted counted on Election Day.  And no one has any idea what such a voter has to do go get their vote counted or when or if it will be counted.

The other difference between the law that Pawlenty vetoed and the photo ID amendment is cost. The photo ID requirement will cost upwards of $50 million for state and county officials, and will potentially cost millions for seniors and others. While the IDs themselves may be provided for free in some cases, the documents and costs associated with obtaining the necessary documents will have to be paid by the individual voter. Those costs range from $25 – $65+. In case you’re wondering, we have over 200,000 people in the state who currently lack the required photo ID.

The photo ID amendment is just a back door way of purging voter rolls and creating obstacles for legitimate voters.   The amendment completely changes your relationship with the State. Right now the government is required to count your vote. The photo ID requirement creates the burden for you, you will have to make the government count your vote. In a very basic way photo ID takes your right to vote away and replaces it with government issued permission in the form of a government issued ID. Does that sound like something that belongs in a constitution that’s supposed to create common ground for us all?

If we had a constitutional threshold of say 70% for amendment passage in MN; controversial and corrosive amendments like these would have no chance and would probably not get on a ballot in the first place.  Of course that would mean that an amendment that I like- the Legacy Amendment which provides funding for the arts and water conservation, would not have passed either. So be it.

Since we don’t have a high threshold it’s up to you dear voter to decide. Regardless of how you personally feel about gay marriage or photo ID look at these amendments. If either one were a great idea for the constitution they wouldn’t be facing the prospect of squeaking by with less than 10% of the vote.  And remember, amendments are not normal legislation, once you got em you’re stuck with them.  Gay marriage is already illegal in MN, what’s the point of an amendment? If you think photo IDs are good idea fine, but this amendment isn’t what you’re looking for.  Do you want to create a constitution that becomes a weapon of discrimination and an obstacle to voters, or do want our constitution be a unifying document that the vast majority of citizens can support and defend in good conscience? Is this going to be the year we start tearing up our constitution with controversial and toxic amendments? Or this the year we’ll vote “No” and keep a constitution we can all live with?

This post was written by Paul Udstrand and originally published on Thoughtful Bastards.

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