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Setting up a possible legal showdown, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has scrapped the title of an amendment to ban same-sex marriage, drafted by supporters, and replaced it with one that echoes the campaign to defeat it.

Ritchie announced Thursday that he was changing the title of the ballot question to read: "Limiting the status of marriage to opposite sex couples."

That has touched off a furious reaction from amendment supporters.

"We'll have to see if they can do that," said amendment sponsor Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville. "I don't know why they are messing with it, but we have to try to stop them."

Amendment supporters wanted the title to read: "Recognition of marriage solely between one man and one woman."

Amendment opponents see no problem with the new title.

"This is an accurate title for the proposed amendment," said Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, the lead opposition group.

Gov. Mark Dayton couldn't keep the question off the ballot, but his symbolic veto of the proposed amendment last year had one permanent effect.

It invalidated the title crafted by the Legislature. Ritchie wrote in a letter to Attorney General Lori Swanson that he is obligated to select a title.

Weighing a lawsuit

Amendment backers were furious that Ritchie changed the title and used the word "limiting," a change they say could influence undecided voters leery of any new government restrictions.

Within hours, amendment backers were weighing whether to file a lawsuit and let the courts settle on a title.

"It's unfortunate for the secretary of state to insert himself in a way to impact the outcome of the vote," said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville.

Ritchie, a DFLer, has drawn the wrath of Republicans recently for his vocal opposition to another GOP-led amendment, one that would require voters to show photo ID before they vote.

His office said he plans to release the title for the photo ID amendment later this summer. Photo ID opponents have already filed a lawsuit challenging the wording of that ballot question.

Ritchie did not return repeated calls for comment Thursday.

"This is a perfect example of why we need the marriage amendment -- you can't trust politicians to allow the law," said Chuck Darrell, a spokesman for Minnesota for Marriage, the lead group pushing the amendment. "They are beholden to special interests, like gay marriage activists, and they will force their agenda without the people having their day. The only way to control the definition of marriage is to put it in the Constitution, where politicians and special interests can't meddle with it."

The fight over the marriage amendment already is proving to be among the most expensive, polarizing and hotly contested races of the election season. The two sides are expected to raise millions of dollars before Minnesotans decide Nov. 6 whether to become the 32nd state to ban same-sex marriage.

Words matter

Election experts say that the wording of a ballot question and its title can be crucial to its success or failure. Slight changes in wording can nudge undecided voters one way or the other, and confusing language can cause voters to skip a question altogether.

Minnesota is one of the few states where it is considered a "no" vote if a voter passes over a ballot question. That twist makes it harder for a proposed amendment to top the 50 percent needed to be cemented into the Constitution.

Other states employ simpler labels for their amendments, like "Proposition 8" or "Question 1." Minnesota's titles and ballot language can cause furious disagreements, occasionally landing in court.

"My guess is they are going to file a lawsuit, and the state Supreme Court will decide whether that's appropriate or not," said Fred L. Morrison, a constitutional law professor at University of Minnesota Law School, said of the amendment proponents.

Ritchie's retooling of the title will not change the wording of the ballot question. Minnesota voters will be asked: "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?"

Amendment supporters insist the amendment is necessary to ensure that only marriages between a man and a woman are legally recognized. They argue they are merely defending a definition of marriage that dates to before the nation was founded.

Opponents are framing the amendment as imposing dramatic limits on individual freedom.

To Carlbom, the amendment is about whether the state "would limit the freedom to marry for committed same-sex couples in Minnesota."

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044