Question: Who’s afraid of a state constitutional convention?
Answer: A lot of people, judging from the number of people and groups opposed to holding one.
This fall, New Yorkers will vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention — something we get to decide every 20 years.
For a long time, the main voices speaking out on the issue were in favor of holding a constitutional convention, and their reasoning was clear. New York’s government is dysfunctional and corrupt, and a constitutional convention is a rare opportunity to bypass lawmakers and enact changes to the state Constitution that self-interested legislators would never consider.
But a new chorus of voices has joined the debate — yes, it’s now a debate — and their reasoning is also clear: A constitutional convention will be dominated by special interests and political insiders, and these powerful forces will undermine the good things in the state Constitution, such as protections for the environment and labor unions.
According to this line of thinking, the constitutional convention is a Trojan horse.
Viewed from a distance, it looks like a grassroots movement for citizen empowerment and better governance. Up close, you can see it for what it really is: a vehicle for making state government even more dysfunctional and corrupt than ever.
There are reasons to be wary of a constitutional convention, and the risk that bad actors will control the process is certainly one of them.
But there’s also a risk in perpetuating the status quo, which is what voting against a constitutional convention would represent.
New York state government is beholden to special interests, lacking in transparency, and hostile to reform.
Rather than address these matters, legislators have continued with business as usual, pushing for a pay increase and generally behaving as if everything is fine and they’re doing a fantastic job.
But this is not the case, as anyone paying attention knows, and it’s become very clear, if it wasn’t already, that state government is incapable of reforming or policing itself.
This sad state of affairs is why voters should reject the fear-mongering of constitutional convention opponents. There’s a reason Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan are opposed to holding a constitutional convention, and it’s not concern for the average New Yorker.
If anything, a constitutional convention is a chance for the average New Yorker to assert him or herself by getting involved in a political process that all too often unfolds in backrooms and behind closed doors.
Here’s how a convention would work: Voters would elect three delegates from each state Senate district and 15 statewide at-large delegates to attend the convention. Delegates would discuss and consider amending the state’s Constitution at the convention; whatever changes they propose must be approved by voters at the polls.
So if the delegates come up with bad proposals, voters will have the opportunity to reject them.
Frankly, I’m more curious about how a constitutional convention might work and what it might do than fearful of it.
Residents voted against holding a constitutional convention the last time it appeared on the ballot, in 1997. The last time a constitutional convention was held in New York was 50 years ago, in 1967.
A lot has changed since then.
Maybe it’s time to put aside our fears, and try again.