Bus tour with teacherken: Checks & balances and constitutional amendments in St. Paul


Ken Bernstein is a recently retired National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher who was a 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher. Nationally known for his blogging as teacherken at Daily Kos and elsewhere, he served until his retirement as the lead building representative (NEA) at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt MD.

Thursday was the penultimate of the several weeks the Stop the Greed Agenda Bus Tour has traveled in the Eastern United States. Our event today was held in front of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul:


Patriot Majority’s Mariah Hatta began and closed the event:

In her opening remarks she especially focused on the attempts of voter suppression, which those assembled had seen up close in Minnesota. And in fact, after the legislature had passed an ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) inspired voter identification law intended to restrict the ability of some groups to vote (and thereby suppress vote) and eliminate the state’s current same day voter registration procedures only to have the bill vetoed by Governor Mark Dayton, the legislature moved to amend the state constitution to achieve the same results.

Our first local speaker was the president of AFSCME East Metro Sub Chapter 5 Retirees President Jeff Birttnen:


He asked the people to vote no on the voter restriction Amendment. He noted it would impose a $50 million unfunded mandate upon local governments, which either would require them to raise their taxes or cut important services. He pointed out that it eliminated same day voter registration, and failed to safeguard voters rights, especially those in nursing homes and of troops serving overseas. Those without the appropriate ID would be required to vote with provisional ballots and then have to return to the county seat within a relatively short periodof time to prove their right to vote. For those whose voting precincts had been established in their nursing homes because they could not easily travel or who deployed overseas, they could not return. The combination of these new requirements would take Minnesota from being the state with the highest voter participation to being one of the lowest.

Leann Bosquez, a member of Working America, spoke next:


She noted that Gov. Dayton had offered two strong reasons for vetoing the legislation. She talked about the unfunded costs of the measure, and that the bill would be in violation of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act. The original bill had been done with no consultation with the Governor. Lacking the votes to override his veto, rather than fix the bill with the appropriate consultation, the legislature simply moved a different version and placed it on the ballot as a constitutional amendment to avoid vetoing by the governor. Among those who would be disenfranchised by this bill would be homeless veterans.

Our third speaker was Dan Mikel, President of the Minnesota Alliance for Retired Americans:


He said that union retirees are aware of legislators tied to ALEC and how similar legislation has been imposed around the country. People should be the ones to amend the state’s constitution, not ALEC, not the Koch Brothers. He quoted State Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson called the pending amendment “inaccurate, misleading and deceptive.” While the identification itself is free, people have to pay for necessary documentation, which can be expensive and time-consuming to obtain. He said that a Passport is not good enough identification if the Amendment passes. Union retirees are calling upon other union retirees to oppose it. One key point he raised is that the people of Minnesota are being asked to vote on the amendment in 2012, but details of its implementation have not yet been worked out, and would have to be worked out after the amendment is passed. The voters are being asked to vote for a pig in a poke. He concluded like this:

We are older,
We are bolder,
and We are standing should to shoulder!

Next up was Minnesota AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Steve Hunter:


He reminded those assembled that the Constitution begins with “We the People” not we the corporations nor we the Koch Brothers. He said of the Kochs and those pushing the Greed Agenda that they want to break the labor unions to have unfettered ability to do what they want. And what they want is a country like Colombia or Guatemala without labor unions. The Amendment would deprive 215,000 Minnesotans of the right to vote.

We need to inform friends and neighbors of what is at stake.

He closed with an old but still powerful refrain:

If we the people stay united, we will never be defeated.

Our final local speaker was District 4 Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter:


She informed us that the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners had passed a resolution against the Amendment. She said it does not make sense that a Constitution which is designed to protect the rights of the people should be changed to deny some the right to vote. In Ramsey County (in which St. Paul is located), 25,000 do not have government ID, it would cost the Board of Commissioners $1.25 million to implement the requirements of the Amendment. And she offered this statistic: of the more than 1 million votes cast in recent elections in Ramsey County, only 114 were found to have been cast illegally, and the vast majority of those were felons who did not realize that they were ineligible.

Mariah Hatta closed the event telling people

Stay informed, stay angry, and get active!

One of the key methods the Koch Brothers have been able to use to advance their Greed Agenda is by getting state legislators involved with ALEC, where they sit with corporate representatives to draft model legislation that advances that agenda. In some states we have seen what can happen when both the legislature and the governor are in alignment with the Greed Agenda – in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, & Florida, they have been pushing changes to the way our governments function and how we vote. They clearly want to destroy unions as an effective voice for ordinary working people. Remember that unions are perhaps the only organizations who can effectively provide resources – monetary and manpower – to educate the voters of what the Greed Agenda is doing to people. That is why they are targets.

Equally important is to prevent those most likely to oppose the Greed Agenda from participating electorally. That is the clear intent of voter ID laws. Regardless of how such laws and amendments may be labeled, it has little to do with protecting the integrity of elections. Such ID only prevents voter impersonation, of which there are miniscule examples in the past decade: remember that the figures from Ramsey County of 114 cases of improper voting were mainly people not entitled to vote because of their status as felons. Given modern technology, were such a person attempting to vote under the current Minnesota provision of same day registration, it would not be difficult to be able to check their identification through a database and were there a question only grant them a provisional ballot.

ALEC focuses on legislators. In Minnesota the Governor, a man who comes from the entitled class, as did both Roosevelts and John and Bobby Kennedy, Mark Dayton sees his role as serving not his economic class but all of the American people. While the legislature may be in thrall to the Greed Agenda, the Governor is not, and given the check and balance of the veto power, he has been able to block the efforts to disenfranchise a large number of people.

All elections matter. Local school boards can impose really damaging conditions on how our students are able to learn. State Constitutional Officers often have significant responsibilities over parts of the government, as we have seen with Secretaries of States who control the electoral process. Thus it is important in opposing the Greed Agenda that we not only turn out and vote for legislators at state and federal levels, and for governors and presidential candidates, but up and down the the complete ballot, for all offices.

If America is going to remain a place where the defining principle is government by “We the People” then all of the people should be participating in making decisions, and the most important tool we have to do that is by voting.

Minnesota has a proud tradition of voter participation. There is no doubt that same day registration can have a significant impact upon its elections: most observers will tell you that without same day registration Jesse Ventura would never have been elected Governor. People who had not previously been interested showed up in large numbers to register and vote for him on election day.

If a democracy is supposed to be government by the demos – the people – we need to have as many people as possible participate. We should not be placing barriers to political participation, but removing them. In fact, the trend of our history has been the expansion of the franchise. Think of how we have changed the US Constitution to broaden electoral participation.

  • 15th Amendment – could not be denied the right to vote on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude
  • 17th Amendment – direct election of United States Senators
  • 19th Amendment – could not be denied the right to vote on account of gender
  • 23rd Amendment – gave the residents of the District of Columbia a vote for President and Vice-President
  • 24th Amendment – barred states from preventing voting in federal elections for failure to pay a poll or other tax
  • 26th Amendment – lowered the age to vote to 18

In light of the Koch Brothers’ pursuit of the Greed Agenda through ALEC, consider especially the 17th Amendment. That change to the Constitution came from a pushback from below. People were outraged that some state legislatures were effectively owned by things like railroad corporations. That gave those corporations the ability to control who served from that state in the United States Senate. It was enacted in 1913, at the tail end of our previous Gilded Age. Now in what seems to be the existence of a new Gilded Age where wealth and power flow increasingly to those who already have them, it is not at all surprising that rather than trust in the American people those like the Koch Brothers want to disenfranchise anyone who might stand in the way of their further enriching themselves. Apparently seeing one’s net worth in the tens of billions of dollars is insufficient.

I am of the age of the 26th Amendment. My generation argued that if we were being required to go fight and kill and die in a war in Vietnam, often involuntarily through the Selective Service Act (draft), then as a matter of basic fairness we should have a say in selecting those public officials making the decisions that imposed those requirements. It was to us fundamentally unfair that we had no say, and the American people agreed with us. Now the Koch Brothers and those advocating the Greed Agenda are prepared to effectively disenfranchise many of those who were empowered to vote by this Amendment. In Texas your concealed carry permit qualifies as the necessary government ID but an ID from a state university or college does not.

The poll tax amendment removed economic barriers to voting for federal office. Because it is too expensive for most localities and states to run parallel registration and voting processes, it effectively barred the poll tax for voting for any office. Many of the voter ID procedures now being imposed serve as back door ways of setting up economic barriers to electoral participation.

We also now hear rhetoric about “takers,” about those who do not pay federal income taxes, with some even advocating that such people perhaps should not be voting because they are not paying those taxes, despite the fact that almost everyone pays payroll taxes on at least some of their earning, with those at the lower end of the income pyramid paying it on all of theirs, while those whose income is from carried interest and capital gains pay nothing for payroll taxes on those items and have the portion of their salary subject to such taxes capped at a bit over $100,000. This approach is the basest kind of class warfare, and is intended by those advocating it to reverse the progress we have made in political participation and restrict the voices of many Americans.

We should be grateful that Governor Mark Dayton vetoed the legislation. For that we can thank separation of powers and checks and balances.

We still must face the fact that in some states it is relatively easy to amend state constitutions, much easier than – fortunately – it is to amend the US Constitution.

That can cut both ways. In Minnesota those pushing the Greed Agenda are trying to do an end run around the Governor’s veto, because they lack the 2/3 vote necessary to override it. With proper organization, for which unions are essential, it is possible to beat back such an effort.

In Michigan, it is by amending that state’s constitution that workers hope to protect their rights to collective bargaining.

We need to find a way to limit the money in politics. We need to ensure that those who are very wealthy cannot use that wealth to effectively or literally disenfranchise the rest of us. We cannot allow them to maintain control over the governmental process to feather their nests while imposing upon the rest of us tax burdens and taking away from us essential rights and services.

Minnesota was lucky – so far – because Governor Dayton exercised his power of the veto.

Now it is up to the voters to prevent the end run of voter suppression through constitutional amendments.

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