Will constitutional amendments be key in deciding close legislative elections?

Getting voters to the polls is a key part of any election, but it's not clear what effect Minnesota's two proposed constitutional amendments will have on turnout.

battle for control series logoWhat impact will the Minnesota ballot’s two constitutional amendments have on voter turnout and the battle for control of the Legislature?

Start with these seemingly contradictory statements:

• Despite millions of dollars being spent in the fight over the two measures, experts in Minnesota elections don’t expect the amendments to create any significant surge in the number of voters.

• The marriage amendment and the voting amendment could determine whether Republicans maintain control of both legislative chambers — or whether DFLers return to power.

How can both be true?

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and other state election experts say they don’t expect the amendments to draw larger numbers than for a typical presidential election. With or without the amendments, Ritchie expects a turnout of about 78 percent of eligible voters.

But there’s a huge caveat in this blanket statement, warns Joe Mansky, Ramsey County elections director and an expert on state voting patterns.

“My simple reaction is that turnout is driven by the presidential race,” Mansky said. “There will be a falloff on those who vote on the presidential race and those who vote on the amendments. Typically, that falloff is about 5 percent. But, in a close legislative race, a surge of support for, or against, either of the amendments could swing that race.”

Handfuls of votes could decide swing elections in many races, including the 28 that MinnPost has identified as key to watch in determining which party will hold power come January.

DFL, GOP strategies

Interestingly, DFLers believe opposition to the voting amendment will boost DFL candidates, especially in districts that include Indian reservations. Also, DFL candidates in college towns across the state hope that opposition to the marriage amendment will spur higher-than-normal student participation.

MinnPost photo by James Nord
DFLers are hoping that opposition to the voting amendment will motivate voters to go to the polls.

Republicans, meantime, are trying to maximize turnout by social conservatives. Over the weekend, for example, Republicans directly teamed up with the Minnesota Family Council to hold door-knocking campaigns to make sure that social conservatives get to the polls in support of the marriage amendment.

Much has been written about the marriage amendment, which has brought in millions of dollars, divided Christian churches, attracted national attention and, presumably, stirred the bases of both the GOP and DFL.

Less attention, however, has been paid to the potential impact of the voting amendment on other races.

Big issue on Indian reservations

But it is a very passionate issue on American Indian reservations. Tribal leaders across the state are urging their members to oppose the amendment.

“Native Americans are very disturbed by that amendment,’’ said incumbent DFL Sen. Tom Saxhaug, who, because of redistricting, is paired against incumbent Republican Sen. John Carlson in District 5, one of our key races to watch. “They’re skeptical of the intent. I’m a history major, and I understand their suspicion,” he said.

The Leech Lake reservation makes up a part of that newly created Senate district and also lies in new House District 5A, which also pairs two incumbents, Republican Larry Howes and DFLer John Persell. With Leech Lake, this district now is 19.5 percent minority (mostly American Indian). If tribal leaders are successful in boosting turnout to oppose the voting amendment, it’s a decided plus for Persell, a policy analyst for the tribe.

Assuming that tribal members, who vote heavily DFL, do turn out in higher numbers than normal, first-time candidate Roger Erickson, a DFLer, is expected to benefit significantly in his race against incumbent Republican Dave Hancock in House District 2A, which includes the Red Lake Reservation.

According to a MinnPost anaylsis, that district leans only slightly DFL, based on voter patterns in the last three legislative elections.

However, much has changed for Hancock, who was part of the Republican wave of 2010. (He won by 800 votes over DFL incumbent Brita Sailer.)

Hancock said the Tea Party anger, especially over Obamacare, “doesn’t have the resonance” it had two years ago.

More importantly, District 2A has been reconfigured, putting the Red Lake Nation at the center of the district. The Indian population accounts for about 18 percent of the new district.

With the Indian vote heavily favoring DFLers, Erickson, a longtime assistant football coach and teacher in Baudette, would be the beneficiary.

To be clear, both candidates say the amendment is not the major issue as they travel across the huge district. (Gasoline is one of the major campaign expenses in the district, said Hancock of traveling a district that covers more than 140 miles north to south as the crow flies.)

Property taxes and the state’s shifting of school funds are the primary issues that both candidates hear about when they knock on doors.

In fact, Hancock believes that overall, the district likely leans toward supporting both amendments.

But in a race that likely will be decided by only a few hundred votes, the amendments, especially the voter amendment, could play a role — and not just on the reservation.

Erickson points out many precincts in the district have turned to mail-only voting as both a way to save money and to offer convenience to voters who otherwise would have to travel significant distances to vote.

As constituents learn more about the possible impact of the amendment, there’s growing concern about what it could mean to mail voting, he believes.

And then there’s the Red Lake factor.

“It’s another reason for Native Americans not to trust Republicans,” Erickson said of the voter amendment. “There’s a concern that Republicans are trying to disenfranchise them.’’

Republicans have been trying to calm Indian concerns, saying that tribal IDs would be valid under the new system.  But it’s a tough sell.

Amendment factor unclear

There’s even less clarity about the role the amendments will play in other key races in the state.

In House District 14B (the St. Cloud area), for example,  both incumbent Republican King Banaian and DFL challenger Zach Dorholt believe the marriage amendment could play at least a small role in turnout in a race that Banaian won in 2010 by a scant 13 votes.

“I have been surprised how little the amendments have come up at the doors,” said Banaian, who supported both amendments, in an email.

“I have had a few gay and lesbian couples at doors with whom I have had good conversations but not much from the yes side. Vote ‘Yes’ on Marriage signs showed up later here, but we’re seeing more in the last few weeks. With seven Catholic churches in the district, parishioners … recently got a letter on the amendment from their bishop, [so] I expect some motivation to turn out.

“I see no evidence of people turning out just to decide whether or not to use photo ID,” he continued.  “ ‘Yes’ on photo ID signs outnumber the ‘No’ signs by a wide margin.”

Dorholt, however, believes that the marriage amendment could play a role because of the area’s college students.

“The college-age people are adamantly opposed to the gay marriage amendment,” he said.

College vote a factor in Northfield race

In Northfield (Senate District 20), former DFL Sen. Kevin Dahle is banking on college students at Carleton College and St. Olaf to turn their opposition to the marriage amendment into votes for him in his race against the GOP’s Mike Dudley.

“It’s going to be huge for me in Northfield,” said Dahle, who lost to Al DeKruif by 2.6 percent in 2010. (Redistricting ended up pairing DeKruif and fellow Republican Sen. Julie Rosen, so DeKruif stepped out.)

While Dahle plans get-out-the-vote rallies at the two colleges, Dudley works other areas of the district.

There’s “much more fertile ground for me to troll for votes than the colleges would be,” he said of working a district that the MinnPost analysis shows leans slightly to the GOP.

Although both the GOP and DFL adopted predictable positions on the amendments in their platforms, the parties and most candidates seemed until recently to keep arm’s length from the amendments.

A strategy change

That seemed to change late last week, when Republicans in Edina, Eagan and Grand Rapids received a letter under the combined heading of the GOP and the Minnesota Family Council. The letter urged activists to get involved in a door-knocking effort on Saturday.

Portions of the letter:  “This Saturday, Oct. 6th, the MN Family Council is taking part in a national conservative door-knocking campaign. We need to build 10 door-knocking teams to reach pre-identified conservative households in Edina. … Teams will have a minimum of two people. To get the best response, we will attempt to mix males and females. We want kids, the younger the better. Family teams with kids are perfect.”

That tactic of partnering with marriage amendment advocates may indicate that GOP leaders fear that the perceived weakness at the top of the ticket of Mitt Romney and Kurt Bills may discourage Republican voters from going to the polls.

Mitt Romney
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
With Minnesota conservatives less than excited about Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the marriage amendment has potential to animate this key constituency.

Romney was soundly rejected by Minnesota Republicans on caucus night, with Rick Santorum the favorite of participating party members. Also, Romney has run a nearly invisible presidential campaign in the state.

At a Humphrey Institute forum last month, the GOP’s Vin Weber expressed concern about how enthused Republicans might be on Election Day. “It’s worrisome that the top two positions don’t appear to be competitive,” he said at that time.

Other Republican leaders have expressed similar concern about GOP enthusiasm.

“I think what worries me more is how much the Ron Paul folks [will be] carrying Romney’s water in the state,” said Rhett Zenke, chairman of Winona County Republicans. Ron Paul, of course, picked up 33 of Minnesota’s 40 GOP national delegates.

It’s possible, then, that the party sees the amendments — especially the marriage amendment — as a way to inspire some in the base.

But that’s a dicey decision. Throughout the campaign, there has been considerable speculation about how the amendments will play in the suburbs. Some DFL candidates say the amendments prove that GOP legislators are “extreme.”

“In a lot of suburban districts, I think opposition to the [marriage] amendment is probably the dominant position – not overwhelmingly dominant, but still the dominant position,” Tom Horner, a consultant for the “Vote No” campaign, told Politics in Minnesota.

Horner, a former Republican who was the Independence Party candidate for governor two years ago, said that the marriage amendment in particular is “creating a lot of challenges” for suburban Republican candidates.

But do the amendments line up directly with party voting?

Amendment impact hard to measure

It’s hard to tell just how much the amendments and voting patterns might affect legislative races across the state.

Incumbent DFL Rep. Patti Fritz, for example, defeated Dan Kaiser by 152 votes in 2010. The two are matched up again in District 24B (the Faribault area. Neither candidate is hearing much about the amendments while door-knocking. But, both say, turnout is key.

Kaiser, when asked, states his support for the amendments.

Fritz opposes them but offers a more subtle position on the marriage issue. She supports one-man, one-woman marriage, like current state law, but opposes the marriage amendment, calling it “a complete waste of time.”

She said her opposition to the amendment has put her in hot water with Catholic priests in the district. The church’s position, she said, caused her to wonder, “Why don’t you see me about the poor, the hungry and the sick?”

Which brings us to the impact of the Catholic Church.

MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Catholic Church have made passage of the marriage amendment a priority.

Senate District 28 includes Winona State University and a large Catholic population. Both GOP incumbent Sen. Jeremy Miller — the lone Republican to oppose the voting amendment — and DFL challenger Jack Krage try to avoid the amendments while campaigning.

But Krage does say that he believes “there are many Catholics who are going to vote ‘no’ [on the marriage amendment] but they’re not going to talk about it.’’

Which brings everything back to the beginning.

The amendments may not create a huge voter surge in the state, but in the privacy of the voting booth, they may have a huge impact on small races.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/10/2012 - 09:05 am.

    Using the kids

    From the article regarding the conservative door-knocking campaign:

    “We want kids, the younger the better. Family teams with kids are perfect.”

    From a Thomas Swift comment to an article about the exclusion of a GLBT youth group from the Anoka Halloween parade:

    “Just another opportunity to use kids…it’s disgusting.”

    Using kids – disgusting or not? I sure wish you conservatives would make up your minds!

    • Submitted by Arito Moerair on 10/10/2012 - 12:31 pm.

      Disgusting or not, I’ve got a good mind to seek out those exact Edina neighborhoods with my wife and daughter and campaign for Vote No. I think it would be interesting, if not hilarious, to knock on doors WITH the Vote Yes regressives and battle it out on someone’s doorstep.

      I’m white, male, suburban, married with a child — the perfect demographic for the Vote Yes regressives. And yet I’ll vote NO. It would blow their minds.

  2. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 10/10/2012 - 10:29 am.

    No comments at the Door

    This is the 2nd MinnPost article with the theme “no conversation at the door.” I have no need to talk to political aspirants about my vote on the amendment. The Republican incumbents already told me how they feel about the amendments by putting them on the ballot rather than solving the state’s problems. I will vote against them and vote NO in NOvember on both amendments. We don’t need language in our state constittuition that denies rights to Minnesotans.

  3. Submitted by David Broden on 10/10/2012 - 11:19 am.

    Voting for Good Government Policy for Mn Future is Priority

    Once again the MN GOP leadership has stepped beyond the role of a political party to encourage good government policy focused to the future of Mn priorities– education, strong economy, roads and transportation, competitiveness,and government operation redesign and focused on social management which is an individual right and responsibility. The Mn GOP history has been of progressive and moderate policies that shaped Mn in the past and today. The lack of attention to the real problems and a vision for Mn future is very troubling to most citizens. Mn wants to be the progressive state that it has been and will continue to be- tolerant of views, open to new ideas, innovative in all respects. The MN GOP has lost that view- as a former GOP leader, campaign manager, and with an continuing interest in visionary public policy I will not be voting for GOP legislative candidates nor are many of those I associate with every day– until the GOP recognizes the challenges of Mn and builds a vision other will lead Mn forward in the Mn progressive tradition.

    Dave Broden

  4. Submitted by Tim Milner on 10/10/2012 - 01:18 pm.

    This article

    brings out one of the things that really concerns me and why I voting yes on the ID amendment.

    I have clients in Northfield and visit frequently. It’s is two completely different towns based on if the students are in school or on break. Both schools are residential colleges drawing nearly all their students from outside the city boarders. I’ve had Northfield folks tell me they think the population almost doubles while school is in session.

    Is it fair to the permanent citizens of Northfield to have that many transient students voting in their local elections? And should politicians, such as Sen Dahle be hoping for an election boost from these students? (and this is not meant to be a DFL slam – he was just the one quoted in the article. I’m sure there are Republicans hoping for similar boost elsewhere)

    I say no. And presenting an ID, which has an address, would differentiate between those who have some sort of permanent residency in Northfield and should vote there, verse those that don’t who should be voting by absentee ballot in another city/town.

    I have no problem with the students voting in National elections where ever they are. Likewise, if they live in MN, I don’t care where they vote for Governor, US Senator or other statewide offices.

    But if we are going to go through the pains of redistricting every 10 years in hopes of creating a “representative government” than I think the least we can do is ask for some basic verification that the voter is voting in the right area.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/10/2012 - 05:18 pm.

      Students can vote where they go to school

      Tim, students are legally permitted to vote in the location where they go to school if that is where they are claiming their residence to be. Nothing in the amendment changes this (that I know of – and if it does, then that’s yet another reason to oppose it).


      Students may reside in their “college towns” for four or more years. They have a right to participate in local governance if they choose by voting on issues which may affect them, just like any other citizen.

      Some “go home to Mom and Dad’s” when school is out and some do not. You can’t make generalizations about where their “real” residence is. Because for any given student, you just don’t know.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/10/2012 - 07:37 pm.

      Why of course not

      We wouldn’t want those students to develop a sense of community and place! Then they might actually want to stay and have a say in the place they spend 3/4 of their lives. They might get the idea that their opinions matter and that they could actually exert a little power. No its much better to dilute their impact by sending them back to the far flung reaches they came from so the college communities can continue to pretend the issues they find important, and the students themselves don’t exist, at least until it comes time to pour their money into the community that is. Does that about sum it up Mr. Milner?

      • Submitted by Tim Milner on 10/10/2012 - 09:43 pm.

        Great Rethoric Matt

        So, since they live 3/4 pf there lives there (let’s be generous – 5 years of school x 9 months/ 22 years x12 months equals living on campus 3/4 of their lives – must be that new math), let’s send the county assessor to their dorm rooms, and collect their portion of the property taxes necessary to provide the fire, police, snow removal, etc services that they use. Fair right? All the other residents are required to pay – directly or indirectly (through rents charged). Or is it OK for students to just vote in local taxes that they don’t pay for. That’s a pretty good situation – I can see why politicians really want their votes.

        And Pat – I support completely the ability for student to declare their residence as their school and vote in that district. Many rent house for 12 months and live year round. A few even live in the dorms year round. Just change your ID and life is good!

        But your last 2 sentences is exactly my point.

        “You can’t make generalizations about where their “real” residence is. Because for any given student, you just don’t know.”

        We just beg to differ on the importance of that point – that we just don’t know where their “real” residency is. You feel it’s ok to vote where ever – I think that is wrong and dilutes our representative government if they vote in a district they don’t reside in. Which is the worse situation? Don’t know. It would be a great statistical analysis project for one of the schools to see how big an issue it is. But I know that a lot of my kid’s friends voted at school and not at home. I hope the Merriam Park residence are OK with their choices.

    • Submitted by Chris Farmer-Lies on 10/10/2012 - 09:12 pm.

      Not only will the amendment not stop this (which isn’t a problem at all, by the way) it’s concerning that a supporter of the amendment thinks people who live in an area for at least four years don’t deserve to have any say in state or local elections. Concerning, but unsurprising I suppose.

  5. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 10/10/2012 - 04:14 pm.

    Religious groups’ tax breaks

    It is flamboyant–the way the Catholic Church is campaigning to get their constituents (parishioners?) to vote yes on the marriage amendment. Why does no one stop them? Why are they allowed special tax status?

    • Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 10/10/2012 - 08:36 pm.

      You should talk to Jewish Community Action

      and their presentation, along with Richard Carlbom, at Adath Jeshurun Synagogue some months ago advocating against the Marriage Amendment. The same goes for Plymouth Congregational Church and their banner on the southeast corner of Lasalle and Groveland.

      “Why does no one stop them? Why are they allowed special tax status?”

      Good question.

      • Submitted by Rachel Weisman on 10/10/2012 - 09:09 pm.

        Here’s an answer

        Neal, maybe you don’t know that JCA (Jewish Community Action) is not affiliated with a synagogue or a Jewish movement.

        • Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 10/11/2012 - 06:37 am.

          The event was held at Adath Jeshurun

          To reiterate – JCA’s presentation, with Richard Carlbom as a speaker, was held at Adath Jeshurun Synagogue some months ago advocating against the Marriage Amendment. The synagogue allowed JCA to use their facility for a political purpose.

          If Jewish Community Action did not claim to be part of Judaism, they would have left out “Jewish”.

          • Submitted by Rachel Weisman on 10/11/2012 - 08:57 am.

            Good try

            JCA is not affiliated. You either don’t understand what that means or you are choosing to ignore it.

  6. Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 10/11/2012 - 04:47 pm.

    I fully understand how “affiliated” is defined

    in the context of Judaism. Again: if Jewish Community Action did not claim to be *part of Judaism*, they would have left out “Jewish”.

    A political event was held at Synagogue Adath Jeshurun.

    “Why does no one stop them? Why are they allowed special tax status?”

    Once again: good question.

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