Every 20 years the New York electorate is presented with a ballot referendum question: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” Article XIX, section 2, of the State Constitution requires that this question be posed every two decades. If a majority of voters decide they want a convention, at the next general election, three delegates will be elected from each Senate district to participate at the convention. This would result in 204 delegates debating the need for amendments, inclusions and deletions to the State Constitution.
Compared to the United States Constitution, New York’s State Constitution is much longer and includes far broader subjects than the federal constitution. There is no question that it needs a major overhaul; there are many outdated or confusing provisions, sections that the courts have ruled are unconstitutional, and topics that probably should not be in the constitution. Despite this laudable need to “clean up” the constitution, the issue of whether to hold a convention is highly controversial and has given rise to strong reactions from interest groups, public officials, academics and the legal community. It is not the advantages of streamlining and modernizing the text of the State Constitution that has stirred up so much support or opposition to the ballot proposal; it is the possibility that the convention will propose the adoption of changes or additions to the spectrum of individual rights guaranteed in the constitution, along with the many social, economic and political issues that could be promoted by delegates. Many of these issues could affect local governments and school districts, so governmental officials need to familiarize themselves with the arguments advocated by proponents and opponents of a constitutional convention.
Public information campaigns are already underway by various organizations seeking voter approval or rejection of the upcoming ballot proposal. Some groups are concerned with particular issues, while others are focused on the process of delegate eligibility and selection, the conduct of the convention, and how its proposals should eventually be presented to the electorate. There are general categories of concern that are being expressed by groups and organizations that are organizing efforts to educate or influence voters. Below is a sampling of some of their positions.
Arguments against a Constitutional Convention include:
- Potential control of a convention by well-funded interest groups that can mount media campaigns to influence voters;
- A convention will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars with no guarantee that voters will approve of the suggested changes to the State Constitution;
- There is already a workable mechanism for the State Legislature to amend the State Constitution and it regularly does so through the process that includes voter ratification. Since 2013, the electorate has approved seven of the last eight separate amendments that have appeared on ballots;
- The delegate selection process will be controlled by elected officials and political party leaders so the same problems in resolving issues that have caused legislative inaction will affect the convention;
- Elected officials serving as delegates will be engaged in “double dipping” by collecting two salaries;
- Certain rights enjoyed by New Yorkers could be curtailed or expanded by proposals, depending on what delegates control the convention; and
- New York voters rejected the proposed constitutional amendments in 1967, the last time recommendations from a constitutional convention were presented on a ballot.
Arguments in support of a Constitutional Convention include:
- The current State Constitution is in dire need of revision since it has been subjected to piecemeal amendment over 200 times since 1894;
- There is a need to alter the structure of local and state government, including exploring issues such as local government consolidation, state mandated programs that place a financial burden on local governments and are enacted without state funding, reformation of education aid, and term limits for elected officials;
- Voters will have the final say regarding the value of all proposed amendments and inclusions to the constitution;
- Inertia between the State Legislature and the Governor has prevented the adoption of meaningful governmental ethics reform in New York;
- There is a need to recognize new constitutional rights, such as same-sex marriage, greater privacy rights, and the adoption of an Equal Rights amendment;
- A constitutional convention is an important process in our democracy that grants voters a greater role in the development of public policies and constitutional guarantees;
- The estimates regarding the cost of a convention are exaggerated and expenses can be controlled.
Elected and public officials need to educate themselves about these various topics since numerous organizations have begun to raise funds and publicize their positions to the electorate on the ballot proposal. A lawsuit has recently been commenced seeking to have the State Board of Election place the ballot question on the front of the November 7, 2017 ballot rather than on the reverse side, with the aim of making more voters aware of the question, thereby increasing the number of votes cast in the referendum.
The last voter-approved Constitutional Convention occurred in 1967 and its proposed changes to the State Constitution were submitted to the voters in one proposal, which was rejected by the electorate. Since 50 years have passed, it will be interesting to see this November the extent of voter interest for a constitutional convention.