Weighing the Merits of a Constitutional Convention

League of Women Voters of the Hamptons speakers who presented the pros and cons of a state constitutional convention on September 18 at the Hampton Bays senior center: (from left) Joan McGivern, Ann Sandford, Estelle Gellman and Carol Mellor. Cathy Peakcock (not at dais) moderated the event. Peter Boody photo
League of Women Voters of the Hamptons speakers who presented the pros and cons of a state constitutional convention on September 18 at the Hampton Bays senior center: (from left) Joan McGivern, Ann Sandford, Estelle Gellman and Carol Mellor. Cathy Peakcock (not at dais) moderated the event. Peter Boody photo

By Peter Boody

Every 20 years, New York state law requires voters to be asked on Election Day whether or not a statewide convention should be held to consider changes to the state constitution.

This is the year for it.

Proposal Number One on the reverse side of the November 7 paper ballot will ask for a “yes” or “no” answer to what seems a simple question: “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same.”

The implications are not so simple. If “yes” voters prevail, the next step would be voting in November 2018 to pick delegates followed by a convention in Albany in April 2019. Any proposed constitutional amendments that might emerge would be subject to voter approval in a referendum to be held at least six weeks after the convention adjourns, probably Election Day 2019.

Depending on who you talk to, the potential effects of answering “yes” could mean a new era of sweeping ethics, civil rights, educational, health, labor and environmental reforms — or a gutting of existing guarantees by right-wing forces bent on dismantling the progressive achievements of past generations.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, believes a constitutional convention could lead to changes that wipe out collective bargaining, pension protections and even the “Forever Wild” guarantee added to the constitution in 1894 that eliminated threats to the new created Adirondack State Park.

“It’s not liberal and progressive groups” pushing for a convention, she said. “It’s conservative groups.”

Many unions and environmental organizations agree with Ms. Weingarten, a former East Hampton resident who debated the question before a meeting of East Hampton Democrats in Amagansett in September.

Her opponent at the event, Al Benninghoff of the New York Says Yes coalition, argued that a convention would be “an incredible way for us to achieve a lot of progressive goals” that “a corrupt legislature” has been resisting for decades.

They could include a guaranteed right to abortion, term limits for state legislators, expanded environmental protections, tougher ethics standards in Albany and further protections for the funding of public education.

The League of Women Voters of the Hamptons also favors a “yes” vote. At an informational program that the League offered at the Hampton Bays Senior Center on September 18, members of its Government Committee reviewed the ballot proposal’s background, issues that might come up at a convention, and the pros and cons of a “yes” vote.

Committee member Joan McGivern noted that New York “is a liberal state” and its constitution “has a more expansive guarantee of rights than the U.S. Constitution. Given where our Supreme Court may or may not be headed, that may in the future become an increasingly important factor for citizens of New York.”

One purpose of a convention, she said, would be to “remove outdated language” in the current unwieldy, overly long document. It would give delegates a chance to “reprioritize” the document, which could mean “a bit of a free for all.”

The 20-year requirement for a convention proposal on the ballot allows voters to avoid the cumbersome process otherwise required to call a constitutional convention, Ms. McGivern noted: a majority of both houses of the legislature must vote for a convention two sessions in a row.

New York State hasn’t had a convention that resulted in any amendments since 1938. No convention has been held since 1967, when it was convened by vote of the legislature. Voters rejected a convention in 1997.

If a convention is called this year, reported Cathy Peacock, co-chair of the committee, it would be held for six to eight weeks beginning in early April 2019. It would have to be over by the end of September for any amendments proposed by a majority of delegates to appear on the ballot in November 2018, she explained.

Any resident over age 18 could run to be one of the convention’s 204 delegates. They would be chosen on Election Day next year. Candidates of an established party would need to collect at least 1,000 voter signatures to appear on the ballot; independents would need 3,000. Each of the state’s 63 senatorial districts would elect three delegates. There also would be 15 at-large statewide delegates, who would need to collect 15,000 voter signatures to appear on the ballot.

Each delegate would be paid $79,500 plus expenses for staff and supplies. It’s estimated a convention will cost the state between $50 and $110 million, according to Ms. Peacock.

The delegate candidates tend to be people who are familiar with the election process, she said. Typically, they are legislators and judges, members of special interest groups, advocacy groups like the League of Women Voters, underrepresented groups and lobbyists.

Co-chair Ann Sandford said the issues likely to arise at a convention include election law (make registration easier, for example, she said); ethics standards, which currently are not included in the constitution; and campaign finance limits.

A convention could propose an amendment to add a right to “honest government” in the constitution’s bill of rights, she added.

Delegates could deal with what Ms. Sandford called “institutional issues,” such as redistricting; the relationship between state and local governments, including the use of consolidation to improve efficiencies; and restricting “unfunded mandates.”

“Public policies,” she said, could include reproductive rights; conservation and environmental issues including the “Forever Wild” amendment of 1894; and the 1894 Blaine amendment, which prohibits public funding for private and parochial schools. An amendment to repeal it, proposed at the 1967 state convention, was rejected by voters.

Other topics could include “what’s not in the constitution, such as educational standards, a women’s bill of rights, pay equity and domestic violence, Ms. Sandford added.

Reviewing the pros and cons of a “yes” vote, Estelle Gellman noted that those who favor a convention have argued “this is our best chance to get change in government” because it allows voters to bypass a recalcitrant legislature.

But “there could be amendments that are against” the progressive reforms some voters seek, she noted. But “remember, any proposals that come out of this convention have to be voted on by the population,” she added.

Carol Mellor, presenting the league’s position in favor of a “yes” vote, said: “We believe that the constitutional convention is our best chance to change the way New York State is governed.”

“Good things happen” at constitutional conventions historically, Ms. Mellor said. “Almost everything people want to protect” in the current constitution “happened at a constitutional convention.”

A hundred organizations opposing the convention include right- and left-leaning organizations, she noted. “What joins these people together?” she asked. “I say it’s fear, it’s fear that we won’t do the right thing. It’s fear that our … broken government in Albany is better off broken, with legislators that don’t do their job, with legislation that doesn’t get passed.” It’s people who believe “that’s better than taking the chance that we can elect delegates who will do what we want them to do.”

And if what they do at the convention “goes wrong,” she said, voters can just “say no” at the polls.