The Complexities of a Constitutional Convention

A map of New York’s Congressional Districts, as of the 113th US Congress

Staff Writer

Last Tuesday, anyone who voted in New York State had the option to vote on a ballot measure known as Proposition One-whether or not to hold a constitutional convention. A yes vote would open up our state constitution to amendments via a convention that would take place in 2019. Voters would elect a total of 204 delegates to attend the convention. A no vote assures business as usual.
The vote for a constitutional convention only comes every 20 years, and the national political climate had an influence on voters’ decisions. For once, however, this was not a partisan issue. There was opposition from Planned Parenthood, and well as anti-abortion organizations. There was support from the Republican minority leader of the state assembly, Brian Kolb, and Evan Davis, a counsel to former Democratic governor Mario Cuomo.
Still not sure why this is such a big deal? Don’t worry: I wasn’t sure for a while either. But through research, I have learned that the risks and benefits of a constitutional convention are weighty, making for a tough decision. Though we will not have another chance to vote on this for another two decades, it is vital to understand what New Yorkers have secured and avoided by voting it down.
A major concern of the constitutional convention came from labor unions. They worried that this could be an opportunity to weaken their rights to collective bargaining and restrict pensions. The unions formed a group called New Yorkers Against Corruption, and their website details what else could have potentially been left vulnerable if the constitutional convention passed, such as public education funding and environmental regulations. With a conservative and unpredictable White House, unions did not want to put at risk the rights that have been established in our state constitution since the 1930s.
They along with all of the other anti-constitutional convention forces spent millions of dollars to spread the word. Their concerns over their rights were valid; however, they used Trump-esque scare tactics to get support. Regardless of whether voters fell for Trump’s unfounded populist rhetoric last year, they were swayed to vote against the constitutional convention in a similar way. Conservatives feared that a constitutional convention would swing the state farther left, and liberals feared the opposite. Where are the facts in this, though? Essentially anyone could be elected as a delegate for the convention, and in turn, voters will have the final say of whether or not the proposed changes to the constitution will pass. It is the unsubstantiated ‘what ifs’ that caused people across the political spectrum to collectively vote against it, for they deemed it easier to deal with the status quo than disrupt it and allow for changes they don’t want.
Supporters of the constitutional convention argue that this disruption is exactly what New York needs. Corruption scandals have become commonplace in Albany, and the convention could have been a chance for constituents to effect rapid reform. By voting no, New York may have missed a chance to attack the core of government corruption. It was an opportunity to enact term limits for politicians, campaign finance regulations, and implement other ethics laws that would combat the “three men in a room” style of governing that has been hindering progress.
This, however, was not a guarantee. Though voters would have a hand in the process of electing delegates, it would be entirely possible that big money and lobbyists could weasel their people into the convention and shut down reform efforts. Establishment insiders and political families could also gain influence and take selfish advantage of this rare occasion. As Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, said earlier this month, “If we’re going to have a convention of the current elected officials to rewrite the Constitution, that defeats the purpose.” In addition, New York’s notorious gerrymandering could lead to a panel of delegates who don’t actually represent what the majority of constituents want (see: 2016 presidential election). Would it be wise, then, for New Yorkers to lay their founding document on the operating table when the surgeons may very well be uninformed organ harvesters?
Further, the convention panel could have lumped all of the propositions together on the ballot, meaning that voters would have to decide on all of them at once, regardless of how the propositions were or were not related to one another. Such is what happened during the last convention, held in 1967: a ban on gerrymandering was paired with a repeal of the ban on taxpayer dollars funding religious schools. The former was a progressive, anti-corruption strategy, and the latter was a violation of the separation between church and state. It ended up being voted down because voters were faced with one issue that they just could not endorse; therefore, the convention was a waste of time and taxpayer money.
A constitutional convention in 2019 would have cost anywhere from $50 million to $100 million out of our pockets. There is no secure way to tell whether or not this money will be going to people who genuinely want what is best for our state, or going to the Albany goons who New Yorkers feel have taken advantage of them enough already.
A constitutional convention also is not the only way for constitutional reform to happen in New York. The process already in place is much slower than a convention would be, which has its pros and cons. The time it takes, two successive legislatures, allows for more careful deliberation, but the long gruelling process can be frustrating to constituents who want immediate action. This year, there were two amendments up for vote that were brought about using this process, and over 200 total amendments have been proposed in the same way.
Despite the success, there are certain issues that require immediate attention and cannot exactly wait four years to go through the legislative process. For example, access to affordable higher education could have potentially been secured in the New York constitution had there been a convention. The student loan bubble is widely considered to be the next one to pop. To put this into context, recall the housing bubble pop of the late 2010s. I say “late 2010s” instead of “2008” because it was not just that one year that lead America into a recession: the housing bubble was years in the making, and when the pop began, it was a mere two years before the situation became a full-blown crisis. With the increasing number of Americans attending college—and thus the increasing number of Americans taking out student loans—on top of the fact that a bachelor’s degree takes four years to complete, this pop is going to be a big one. A constitutional convention could have allowed quicker action to soften the impact of this impending financial crisis on New Yorkers. The regular amendment process could start now, but would not be completed until current and future students have four years’ worth of student loans on their plates, and the bubble may already have popped by then.
To reiterate, New Yorkers have decided against the constitutional convention, which has left our basic rights secure, but also avoided the possibility for a reform that legislators would not pass otherwise. It was a complex issue, one we will not be able to vote on for another two decades. My hope is that people who voted against the convention will find ways to enact just change, and that people who voted for the convention will be by their side. Convention or no convention, we won’t get anything done if we stick to divisive tactics.

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