The Constitutional Convention: Why Does it Even Matter?

Screen Shot 2017-11-01 at 12.40.13 PM“Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?”

Every twenty years, New Yorkers are asked to vote yes or no on this question. A yes would bring about a convention that could radically change and amend the state constitution. But thousands of voters will likely mark their ballots on November 7 without fully understanding the question or the consequences of either vote.

Already, deciding whether to redraft the state constitution is a tough decision. But if you don’t know the process, it’s even harder. So, what is the Constitutional Convention and what does it mean for New Yorkers?

The convention is roughly a two- or three-year process that allows voters to, again, amend the state constitution. It starts with the initial question we posed at the top. If voters say yes, they want a convention, the next move is to elect delegates. These delegates meet, draft amendments and then propose their amendments to voters. Voters can choose to adopt the measures or vote them down. This is a very simple explanation of a complex process, which we’ll dig deeper into later.

And a lot is at stake here, according to some experts who say important rights and union benefits could be undone, particularly because of the national political environment. One of those rights, says Planned Parenthood, is women’s reproductive choice.

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“Women have struggled for decades to have a seat at the table and this process will not be inclusive,” -Golston

“Uncertainty regarding the future of the U.S. Supreme Court leaves the legal right to reproductive choice hanging in the balance,” states New Yorkers for Choice. “If conservatives add restrictions through the constitutional convention process and we lose a decision in the high court, women in New York could be left without the legal right to make fundamental decisions about their own bodies.”

“Much of the core base of the progressive side is really worried about losing things,” said Dr. J.H Snider. He runs online resource the New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse. “They’ve done very well in the last few decades, unions don’t want to lose things.”

“I experienced the Constitutional Convention in 1967 and it was a disaster. Establishment politicians and Albany insiders will hijack the process and abuse their power as delegates,” said Michael Long, Chairman of the New York State Conservative Party. “Further, a constitutional convention will cost New Yorkers hundreds of millions of tax dollars. There is already a process in place to change the New York State constitution. That is why we have four new casinos coming to New York State. If any legislative issue needs change, we all know the course.”

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Interestingly, the Convention was designed to do the exact opposite. It’s supposed to empower New Yorkers, giving them a chance to directly influence the state constitution. It’s not the only route; New Yorkers will also be asked to vote on other legislation that could change the constitution but these are normally piece-meal, dealing with one issue at a time while the Convention can tackle any number of issues and create many amendments.

“You can pass things introduced and jammed in there  and then it becomes law,” said Snider. He’s referring to the traditional legislative process of using huge, omnibus legislation that is essentially too long to read. While it may deal with one issue, politicians can propose unrelated amendments and get legislation passed tacked on to something larger.

“With a convention you have to propose things,” Snider continued. “There’s months of debate and the people have the final say of the mater. It’s a very different dynamic and it’s scary for people who have done well with the legislature.”

According to New York State’s website, essentially, if voters say yes to a convention, three delegates from each state senatorial district will be elected in November 2018. There will also be 15 at-large delegates who represent the entire state and will be elected state-wide. All of them would then go to Albany in April of 2019 for the actual convention and six weeks later an election will be held for voters to say yes or no to the proposed amendments that come out of that convention.  If we say yes, those amendments could go into effect by Jan 1 of 2020.

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However, even throughout the drafting of amendments, the system was designed to include the people’s voice. Delegates won’t want to spend that much working on amendments just for them to get voted down so they may be more likely to pursue palatable legislation or amendments popular with the people. They also use an omnibus approach; packing together so many amendments they’re hard to read through altogether. And often when placed on the ballot, the least controversial language is used.

Chairman Long mentioned the last Convention to happen in the state. While New Yorkers voted for the convention they voted down the amendments. And the last successful convention was half a century before that. In 1936, voters approved a convention. It was held in Albany from April 5 to August 26, 1938.  They passed 57 amendments, including expanding the state’s role in social welfare programs. However, apportionment, a popular cause with this year’s convention, didn’t happen with the last successful convention either.

However, some experts charge the lack of information for New Yorkers could pave a path to corruption for politicians and wealthy interest groups.

“Women have struggled for decades to have a seat at the table and this process will not be inclusive, making it vulnerable to powerful special interests that do not stand for the people of New York, especially those already underrepresented,” said Robin Chappelle Golston, CEO of Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, in a statement.

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“It’s not perfect. Everything about democracy is awful. But it’s a sacred and important right of all to alter government.” – Snider

Ravi Mangla of ROCitizen is one of those New Yorkers who believes the convention could be hijacked. He said, “Our senate districts heavily gerrymandered. Upstate we have [representative] they could conceivably run as delegates in addition to being sitting Senators.”

So why are some groups saying yes? Marijuana advocacy groups and ethics reform have been some of the most vocal. Politically, they’re not very popular because representatives worry about votes but poll high with the people. Therefore, a convention that allows the people a voice would seem to be a potential political path.

And Snider contested the idea that these are fringe groups or extremists. He said most who target the Convention know they’ll do a better job. They wouldn’t spend money fighting for their cause.

“Legislatures aren’t really interested in independent ethics, independent redistricting. They’re popular causes but unpopular with the legislature,” he said. For this reason, legislators are less likely to take them up but that doesn’t mean the people don’t want them as laws.

“I hate being a downer,” said Mangla. “They’re being overly optimistic about the chances of reform coming out of it. Maybe with expanded voting rights, campaign finance reforms, independent redistricting, a convention could be great way to advance progressive causes.”

But it’s not just about what can come up out of this upcoming convention. According to Snider, the institution is critical for the power it gives New York voters and it’s ability to check legislators. Referring to the Constitution’s preamble, he said voters have an inalienable right to alter their government. This means, to him, the convention is necessary for the power it gives the people.

“The politics of a convention are very different,” he said “Special interest groups can reward or punish legislators. There’s an accountability mechanism here. Voting on anything you propose.”

Ultimately the convention was set up to empower the people but without proper information and an increase in lobbying and politics as usual, the people are losing their last hold out. And Snider had advice to keep in mind for even the yes votes. Getting good delegates isn’t enough; you have to keep the Convention deliberate.

“The people who are well-known and actually know what they’re doing have an advantage if you slow down a process. The insiders have less of an advantage then. But more experienced legislators have an advantage if you speed it up.”

“It’s not perfect,” he said. “Everything about democracy is awful. But it’s a sacred and important right of all to alter government.”

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