BY: Brianna Zichettella
On November 7, New Yorkers will have a once in two decades opportunity to decide if the state will rewrite its constitution in part or in whole.
The decision will appear as proposition one on Tuesday’s ballots. It will ask voters to decide for or against holding a New York State constitutional convention.
In a potential convention, delegates will review and rewrite the state’s constitution in whole or in part, and any changes they proposed will be brought to a statewide vote on the following Election Day.
Supporters of the convention argue that it could provide an opportunity to make changes to the state’s government that could reduce political corruption, allow for more local governmental autonomy and restructure the state’s convoluted judicial system.
Detractors counter that the risks are too high; in the process of creating a new constitution, labor unions could lose rights, environmental protections could be stripped and preexisting corruption in the state could prevent the commission from making any real ethics reforms.
If yes votes form a majority, delegates would begin running for office and be elected in November of 2018. The convention itself would begin in spring of 2019, and the revised constitution would optimally be approved by voters the following November.
If no votes outnumber yes votes, there will be no constitution and the question will be put back on the ballot in 2037, barring a legislative call for a convention that is approved by the voters, as happened with the state’s most recent accepted convention in 1967.
New York has had nine constitutional conventions, but the state has only adopted a new constitution four times in its history. Although he most recent accepted changes were adopted in 1938, the bulk of the state’s current constitution comes from its 1894 convention.
The most recent vote for a convention, held in 1997, did not resonate with voters, and the convention was voted down.
The history and function of New York’s constitutional conventions were discussed in an event hosted by Daemen College’s history and political science department last Thursday.
The event featured Christopher Bopst, a former constitutional litigation partner and an editor of New York’s Broken Constitution: The Governance Crisis and the Path to Renewed Greatness. His co-editor, Peter J Galie, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Canisius College, could not make it to the event.
Instead, Galie was replaced by Dr. James Gardner, a SUNY Distinguished Professor from the University at Buffalo’s School of Law. Both Bopst and Gardner spoke in favor of holding a convention.
A segment at the end of the talk was open to audience questions, and several people present voiced their concerns with a potential constitutional convention.
Delegate Selection and Outside Influence
Some were concerned that preexisting corruption in the state would allow special interests to use financial means to hijack the convention, funding delegates supportive of measures that would benefit specific corporations or interest groups.
According to Bopst’s presentation, the convention would require a total of 204 delegates; 15 elected statewide and three elected in each of the state’s 63 senate districts.
To be elected, delegates would use the same process seen in state senate races. With party backing, a delegate would require one thousand party votes to enter the primary, and after winning the primary would have to win in a general election. A candidate without party backing would also need to win primary and general elections but would require three thousand votes to enter the first stage.
These delegates would convene in 2018. It is considered a full time job and, according to Bopst, delegates would be paid a flat rate for the entire convention process, encouraging them to complete their work on the constitution more quickly.
On the question of financial influence, Gardner does not think it will factor heavily.
“You can’t get reelected to the constitutional convention,” Gardner said, referencing the influence of financial backing in elections. “If you’re not toeing the line of an interest groups, there isn’t much they can to. They can’t run ads against you in the next election.”
Bopst agrees. When asked about the influence of special interest groups – the Koch brothers-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), for example – Bopst was dubious about their impact.
“I can tell you they haven’t put any money into this convention. [They’re] not going to change the minds of x-million New Yorkers who consistently support an expansion of rights.”
Audience members also raised concerns with the convention potentially lowering or eliminating state pensions. Bopst believes this sentiment comes from unions lobbying against the convention, and he believes it to be unfounded.
“I don’t think any of the union leaders think their members are going to lose pensions. It’d be illegal. If there were a convention, [union leaders] would have to fund campaigns for people running to be delegates,” Bopst said, speaking from the perspective of unions that he believes have already worked out deals with the current legislators and therefore are resistant to change.
Outside of pensions and corruption, audience members were concerned with the potential cost incurred by a constitutional convention, citing figures ranging up to 300 million.
Bopst and Gardner argue this number is overinflated but promoted by the anti-convention camp despite its inaccuracy.
More than likely, the convention will cost around 55 million dollars, about what the most recent, 1967 convention cost in 2017 money.
“It essentially comes down to $3 a citizen,” said Bopst, arguing that the per-citizen price is low when compared to the chance to make substantive change to the state’s government.
“I think the governmental system is broken,” he said as his rationale for supporting the convention, “And I don’t think we’re going to see anything that can fix the root of the issue: the accumulation of unchecked power.”
While the talk was fairly comprehensive, there were issues surrounding the convention that were not discussed in the timeframe of the presentation or the Q&A segment.
In a February blog post discussing the issue, event organizer Dr. Lisa Parshall wrote that areas that the convention might address could include:
- Strengthening state ethics and public-corruption laws
- State legislative redistricting and reforms
- Campaign finance reform
- Redefinition of gubernatorial powers and implementation of clear succession rules
- State court and judicial selection reform
- State and local government financing reform.
- State gaming laws
- Environmental protections
- Reproductive rights
- Protections for minorities, immigrants, and refugees
- State educational standards
“On a daily basis, we are each of us, impacted directly by the functioning (or lack thereof) of our state and local governments. The decisions made in Albany have significant repercussions for all New Yorkers both upstate and down … and many of the issues about which we care deeply are shaped by state constitutional provisions,” Parshall wrote, advocating careful consideration of the ramifications a convention could have for the state.
Of course, even if a convention occurs, there is no guarantee that voters will accept the proposed changes. As happened in 1967, the voters could decide not to adopt the new constitution after the process is concluded.
This, however, is an issue for after the initial vote on the convention.
“Whatever side you’re on, go in on Tuesday and cast a vote,” Bopst urged audience members.
More likely than not, voters will not get a chance like this for another two decades.