Ballot Question this November: Shall there be a Constitutional Convention?

On Election Day this November voters will be asked the question: ” Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same? ” New York’s existing Constitution requires this question be submitted to the voters of the State every twenty years. If New Yorkers vote yes, delegates to a convention would be selected in 2018, the convention would begin meeting in April 2019, and proposals for amending the Constitution could be on the ballot by November 2019. The Constitution provides that 3 delegates are elected from each Senate district (there are 63 so that would be 189), and 15 delegates are elected at-large statewide. Existing laws controlling election to State office govern the process of nominating and electing the delegates. A limited agenda is not permitted, meaning all kinds of sweeping changes could be submitted to the voters.

In 1997 voters decisively rejected the question of holding a constitutional convention 63%-37%, as did the voters in 1977 and 1957. In 1997, many liberal groups and labor unions were fearful of the risk of bad outcomes from convention proposals and urged a “No ” vote. Part of their concern results from the structure of delegate selection, since the voters would be voting for 3 delegates on separate partisan (Democrat-Republican) slates, and the Republican party had controlled the redistricting process for Senate districts in the 1990s.

The political status quo is similar today to what it was then. The Senate districts were gerrymandered by the Republican majority in 2012 to help elect Republicans and the convention delegate election structure could produce a conservative majority. A conservative majority could place proposals like re-instituting the death penalty, abortion restrictions, elimination of pension protections for public employees, or other anti-labor proposals, on the ballot for 2019. 2019 could also be a very low-turnout year, since there is neither a Presidential election nor state elections for Governor and the legislature on the ballot. Under those circumstances a very low turnout could produce very unrepresentative results.

Good government groups like the Citizens Union (www.citizensunion.org/) and the League of Women Voters (www.lwvny.org/) support a Constitutional Convention, arguing that ethics laws, anti-corruption measures, and voter participation laws, should be strengthened as part of an overall effort to improve democracy in New York.  They argue that voters should not be scared off by fear of bad outcomes.

The Legislature could reform the delegate selection process itself, by creating a nonpartisan convention, creating public financing for delegate election, or limiting voters to voting for only one delegate per district rather than three, to eliminate partisan slate voting. But in previous cycles, both Governors and legislatures have created special Preparatory Commissions for a Convention that made similar recommendations, and the Legislature never acted upon them. In this cycle the State Bar Association (www.nysba.org/) recommended creating a Preparatory Commission at the end of 2015, and Governor Cuomo submitted such a proposal with his budget in 2016. The Legislature did not act, and this year the Governor did not resubmit the proposal.

The Legislature has a separate power to place Constitutional amendments on the ballot, as long as the proposal is voted two times by successively elected Houses of the Legislature for placement on the ballot. In fact, a Pension Forfeiture proposal is on the ballot this November that allows the pensions of officials convicted of corruption to be removed or modified. The Legislature can also propose a Constitutional Convention at anytime, as it did in 1965 when it put that question to the voters. The people voted yes to create the convention, delegates were elected in 1966, the convention met in 1967,and the proposals it submitted to the voters were defeated that year.

There are a number of thoughtful reports on the question of a convention, in addition to what is cited above.  They include a 1997 NYC Bar Association Task Force Report (Report of the Task Force on the NYS Constitutional Convention) (www.nycbar.org), the New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse (http://www.newyorkconcon.info/), and the report of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz (www.newpaltz.edu/benjamincenter/contact.html) to name a few.

Many good government reforms,like public financing of elections or abolition of the llc loophole,and most social, racial, and economic justice advancement, can be passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor without changing the State Constitution. Those idealistic goals would be better pursued by defeating Republican party control of the State Senate than through a Constitutional Convention process that could backfire on progressives.

 

 

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