Amendment process for Minnesota Constitution gives all voices a say and voters a chance to have an impact

ECM Editorial Board
ECM Publishers, Inc.

One of the few things resolved by the 2011 Minnesota Legislature is to propose a constitutional amendment to the voters of Minnesota that would limit valid marriages to only those of a man and a woman.

While this was the only proposed amendment approved so far by the current legislature, it has under consideration another 20 or so proposed constitutional amendments for the 2012 general election ballot, as well as the marriage amendment.

The Legislature was able to finalize the decision to place this amendment on the general election ballot in large part because our state constitution affords the governor no role in amending the constitution. Amendments require a simple majority of each house of the legislature and then an affirmative vote of a majority of Minnesota voters voting at the general election where the proposed amendment is on the ballot.

Amending Minnesota’s constitution is relatively easy compared to amending the U.S. Constitution, which requires approval of two-thirds of each house of Congress and then approval of three-fourths of the state legislatures.

The U.S. Constitution has been amended only 27 times since it was adopted in 1789, 222 years ago. The first 10 of those 27 amendments comprise the “Bill of Rights” and were all ratified in 1789. In the last 220 years the U.S. Constitution has been amended only 17 times. Of the thousands of proposed amendments considered by Congress over the past 222 years, only 33 have received the required two-thirds support of each house of Congress, and but 27 of those ratified by the requisite three-fourth of state legislatures.

On the other hand, in the 153 years that Minnesota’s Constitution has existed, it has been amended 121 times. Over that period the Legislature has proposed 213 amendments, and the voters have rejected 92 of them, an approval rate of 56.8 percent.

The rates of approval and acceptance of proposed Minnesota constitutional amendments have varied over the years, in part due to a subtle but significant change in the standard for votes necessary to approve a proposed amendment many years ago.

In the first 40 years of statehood, Minnesota voters approved 48 of the 66 proposed amendments, an approval rate of 73 percent. The original state constitution merely required an affirmative vote of those voting on the proposal, i.e., more “yes’s” than “no’s.”

In 1898, desiring to make it more challenging to pass constitutional amendments, the Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment to change the standard for adoption of a proposed constitutional amendment from an affirmative vote of a majority of those voting on the question to an affirmative vote of those voting in that election. With 70,000 voting “yes” and 33,000 voting “no” on this proposed amendment, the Minnesota Constitution was amended.

Ironically, with 253,000 people voting in that election, and 150,000 not voting on the proposed amendment, it would have been well short of the votes necessary had it been held to its own standard. Since 1898 the approval rate has dropped to about 50 percent and that standard adopted in 1898 is still a part of our Constitution.

In more recent years the approval rate for proposed amendments has been very high. Since 1980 18 proposed constitutional amendments have been on the ballot, and the voters have adopted 17 of them.

Politicians, academicians and editorial writers will debate what is appropriate to include in our Constitution, and whether and for what it should be amended, but it is clear that the plebiscite afforded citizens in the amendment process for our Minnesota Constitution is one that provides that all voices can have a say and all voters will have an impact, whether they intend to or not.

While the Minnesota Constitution allows voters to override the executive branch’s decision, history suggests legislators should be cautious in over-using the amendment process. Voters should study the issues carefully, and use discretion in amending the state Constitution.

Future legislators might consider changing the Minnesota Constitution so it’s at least as difficult to amend as it is to amend the U.S. Constitution.

Editor’s note: This editorial is a product of the ECM Editorial Board. The Isanti County News is a part of ECM Publishers, Inc.