[Image courtesy of mnbenchbar]

On Monday, the Minnesota Supreme Court cleared the way for Gopher State voters to decide whether or not to require photo ID at the polls.

At issue is a constitutional ballot question approved by the Legislature earlier this year to amend the state constitution to require ID. Opponents of the proposed amendment challenged that question, arguing that its impact would go far beyond ID to limit – if not effectively abolish – the state’s system of election day registration that was recently upheld by a federal court.

The Court’s opinion in League of Women Voters Minnesota et al v. Mark Ritchie was unanimous that plaintiffs were not entitled to block voters from voting on the question in November. However, while the majority was willing to give great deference to the Legislature and leave the question untouched, the dissenters believed that the ballot question was inadequate (and even deceptive) and would have preferred some effort (including, perhaps, printing the entire text of the proposed amendment on the ballot) to illuminate all of the issues involved for voters.

I was especially struck, however, by this passage from Justice Paul Anderson in his dissent:

How this case was litigated is also cause for concern. Early on it became evident that the positions taken by the parties on the validity of the proposed ballot question, vis-à-vis the constitutional amendment, were at polar opposites, both legally and politically. This polarization was evident in the parties’ briefs and at oral argument.
It is unfortunate that our court has been drawn into the current national and state conflict between political forces over how citizens can exercise their right to vote. Nevertheless, we are at the epicenter of this conflict’s highly polarized and partisan atmosphere as it plays out in Minnesota; thus we have no choice but to render a decision.

That said, the parties should have been more cognizant of the distaste that courts
generally, and our court, in particular, have for bringing a polarized, partisan atmosphere with them when they come to our courtrooms. It would have been more helpful had the parties demonstrated more objectivity in their arguments, and been more willing to acknowledge the law, both pro and con, when presenting their arguments to our court.

[PREACH IT, Mr. Justice Anderson.]

The opinion (as well as another upholding the Legislature’s chosen title over an alternate selected by the Secretary of State) sets up a huge- and hugely interesting – clash for the fall.

Minnesota won’t be the first state to vote on photo ID – Mississippi voters approved it last year – but the ferocity of the debate is likely to far outstrip what was largely a forgone conclusion down south. Nor is Minnesota the first election-day registration state to consider photo ID; neighboring Wisconsin enacted such a bill last year (now stalled in court) – but that was decided by legislators as opposed to directly by voters.

The biggest thing to watch, though, is the interplay between the vote on photo ID and the legislative elections also being held this November. The language of the proposed amendment is such that even if it succeeds this November, most observers believe it will require some kind of enabling legislation next year. Consequently, if Democrats (who oppose photo ID like virtually every one of their party colleagues across the nation) take back one or both houses of the legislature, the debate over ID is likely to continue.

For now, however, the fight over photo ID (and another measure banning same-sex marriage) is being taken to Minnesota voters. It’s very possible that even the race for the White House and a U.S. Senate re-election campaign could recede into the background as the two sides go to work this fall.

Fasten your seat belts – it’s certain to be a bumpy ride.