Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #059. First published in the St. Cloud Times June 26, 2012

Between today and Nov. 6, I will have a good deal to say about the substance of the two proposed amendments to the Minnesota Constitution that will be on the ballot. I am strongly opposed to both the marriage amendment and the voter ID amendment.

But for now I want to consider the process by which these two issues are poised on the brink of altering the Minnesota Constitution. Let me repeat: altering the Minnesota Constitution.

Given the angle from which I usually come at issues, you may be surprised to learn that what happened earlier this month in Wisconsin is one of the reasons the Minnesota amending process surfaces in this column.

Had I been a Wisconsin voter, I’d have done everything I could to send Gov. Scott Walker packing. I regret that the recall election was unsuccessful. But I would have had great respect for those who voted for Walker even though they would have loved to see him gone, because they believe that the recall mechanism should be used only in the most extreme and egregious instances of corruption and malfeasance, and not to register opposition to a policy initiative — even one as extreme as stripping unions of bargaining rights.

Amending a constitution is several orders of magnitude more serious than a recall election, and should be undertaken only when public order is in clear danger. The two amendments put forward by this year’s Minnesota Legislature don’t come anywhere near that threshold.

Both should fail

Proponents of the voter ID amendment repeat endlessly that we must protect the integrity of our state’s voting system. They disregard the almost universal esteem granted to Minnesota’s record both for voting participation and for voting reliability. The voter ID amendment is “justified” as a barrier against “voter fraud,” but no one has ever demonstrated anything beyond an infinitesimal chance that a few convicted felons might have cast ballots they weren’t entitled to.

The apocalyptic vocabulary trotted out by proponents of the marriage amendment tries to escalate the whole question to the level of “clear and present danger.” Civilization as we know it; the family as constituted from the foundation of the world; the welfare of children — all these are lined up as though facing a firing squad of gay and lesbian couples whose desire to be publicly committed to one another as heterosexual couples can be is somehow supposed to be the death-knell of marriage.

Research into family structure, child development and maturation, mental and spiritual adjustment — indeed, into human flourishing itself — demonstrates that gay and lesbian people, and the children they raise, are every bit as well-rounded and valuable to society as anyone else. No one can deny that families are in many sorts of crisis, and public policy must pay attention. But to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry misses the point entirely. A constitutional amendment to outlaw poverty would be a much more direct address to the crisis of the family.

Proposed solution

The Legislature has reneged on its responsibility to legislate. It has abandoned the procedures of republican, representative democracy in favor of plebiscite.

I admit to being startled when I discovered that an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution can be proposed by a simple majority of both houses of the Legislature, and that there can be no gubernatorial veto. In 1898 the original arrangement, which required for passage only more yes votes than no votes in the general election, was moderated to require a majority of all the voters, so that failure to register a vote on an amendment counts as a no.

Still, the amendment procedure makes the Minnesota Constitution much too vulnerable to whim, especially the whim of a legislative majority that wants to do an end run around an unsympathetic governor.

Here’s an amendment I would support: That the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require that for an amendment to go to the voters, it would have to receive a majority vote of each house of the Legislature and gubernatorial approval; if the governor vetoes, a two-thirds vote in each house would be required to override and put the amendment on the ballot.