A blog to keep current on MPIRG'S fight for social and environmental justice.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Really? In Our Constitution?

The Minnesota media is constantly buzzing with the murmurs of this year’s constitutional amendments, but the historical implications of these two alterations to the fabric of our state aren’t always highlighted. The political arena seems to be focused on the present, but it pays to step back and look at how monumental these amendments are.

The predecessor to the constitutional amendment process that is standard in Minnesota (pass through both legislatures, and a majority vote of affirmation from voters) hasn’t always been the route. The prior norm was to have the legislature approve the language of our constitution. It wasn’t until 1898 that the public was given the right to vote on the proposed amendments through a statewide referendum. That was also the year that an amendment was passed to allow women to both vote in local library boards and serve on them, but we’ll come back to that. There have been well over one hundred amendments proposed to our constitution ranging from subjects such as public works to the length and flexibility of legislative sessions.

While I was looking through the complete list of proposed amendments that were either affirmed or denied by citizens in Minnesota, it became clear that these two amendments we will be voting on are unique in one clear contrast: changes in our constitution have been to increase rights for groups of people, and almost no amendments have passed that view marriage or voting as a negative liberty and that seek to limit rights.

The first examples of amendments I came across directly involved who had the right to vote. The Minnesota Legislature attempted to grant African Americans the right to vote three times before it passed in 1865 by a slim fifty-six percent affirmation. The only amendment that I saw restricting voting is an 1896 amendment that defined who could vote. One of the requirements was to be “Persons of Indian blood residing in this state, who have adopted the language, customs and habits of civilization, alter an examination before any district court of the state, in such manner as may be provided by law, and shall have been pronounced by said court capable of enjoying the rights of citizenship within the state.” This disgraceful amendment preventing Native Americans from voting remained in our constitution until it was removed in by another amendment in 1960. While the Photo ID Amendment isn’t as outwardly restricting as this one, is that the kind of tone we want to place in our constitution? One that says the right to vote is only for those who deserve to? One of the most recent passed constitutional amendments regarding our state’s election system is something to be proud of. It enabled young people to vote at the age of 19 (previously 21) after a 1970 amendment. That’s the type of election-related amendments we should see in our constitution.

When looking for constitutional amendments on the subject of marriage, I could find none. The definition of marriage has remained untouched in the constitution. In a time where more and more polls are showing America and our generation is viewing marriage equality as a human right, do we really want to cement limiting language in our founding document?

After only a small amount of research, I wouldn’t declare myself Minnesota’s premier political historian, but I do get the feeling that these two amendments don’t measure up. They don’t exemplify the inviting culture that Minnesota is known for. They don’t exhibit our nation’s protection of freedom and civic rights. They don’t belong in Minnesota.

Mitch Menigo, UMTC Voter Engagement Intern

Sources: http://www.minnpost.com/data/2012/03/interactive-history-constitutional-amendments-minnesotahttps://www.revisor.mn.gov/data/revisor/law/1895/0/1895-003.pdf

Photo Credit: http://content.mnhs.org/maps/archive/fullsize/g4130-1857-y663-2f_9ae167d049.jpg

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