Beginning with the Constitution of 1846, every twenty years the following question is put before the voters of New York State: “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution, and amend the same?” While the precise number of the relevant article of the Constitution has changed since the question was included in the 1846 Constitution (from Article XIII to Article XIV to Article XIX), the language of the question remains unchanged. On Tuesday, November 7th, when New Yorkers go to their respective polling places they’ll be presented with this once every twenty years question as Proposition #1 on the ballot. Voters will have two choices: “Yes” or “No.” The fact is that the question on the ballot is rather simple, yet the consequences could be great regardless of the direction in which the public votes. With that said, it’s important to realize that history tells a rather unique and varied story with regards to the development of New York State’s Constitution by way of conventions and none of these stories lend credence to the fear-based advertisements I’ve been seeing on the Internet and in print publications.
First, the current constitution dates from 1895 (the convention was held in 1894 and significant changes were made to the Constitution by way of the 1938 convention), however, unlike the U.S. Constitution, New York State has gone through four constitutions and nine constitutional conventions (as well as a constitutional commission, but that’s a topic for another time). It’s important to note that each iteration of and amendment to the State’s governing document led by and large to improvements in services, ethics in government, public finances, and helped realize the vision of a more equal society. It’s also worth noting that even those proposals put forward by a convention that were later rejected by voters, would have put New York among the most progressive states in the country with regards to constitutionally-protected equality, home rule for cities, rights to basic services, consolidation of bureaucratic functions, workers’ rights, and more. In fact, in the case of the 1915 convention (all of their proposals were rejected at the time), the truly great ideas that emerged from this convention helped inform later amendments to the constitution in 1925 and 1927.
I realize a lot of people are afraid of the prospect of a constitutional convention — television advertisements demonizing the convention as a “Con’s Con” are neither productive or honest. Putting aside interest group funded ads, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that there is a degree of the unknown with a convention, but we shouldn’t misrepresent either the power of convention delegates or the great opportunity that we have to potentially bring reform to New York State. We can’t be sure who will be elected to serve as delegates to a convention, but by voting “no” we are closing the door to the question of a convention for at least another twenty years unless the legislature opts to present the question earlier to the electorate.
There are many issues that New Yorkers have been waiting many years to have addressed. Questions regarding term limits and the very structure of local government warrant a thoughtful consideration that examines the effectiveness of governing under the status quo and the question of what could be under a new a constitution. These are questions that we should not be afraid to have and, frankly, I believe they’re questions that are best debated by diverse voices from both inside and outside of the state legislative chambers. A constitutional convention is not something that should be feared or for that matter that should be subjected to fear-based tactics, but rather the question “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution, and amend the same?” should be considered an opportunity for us to revisit the state’s governing document and determine whether it’s still relevant in the 21st century. The fact is that if we vote to call a constitutional convention, that’s all we’re doing. Convention delegates are not empowered to dictate the future of our state’s constitution, but rather they’re only empowered to offer amendments or a suggested document to the electorate.
In fact, a number of conventions opted to present a series of questions to the electorate, so as to allow voters to vote in favor of only those changes with which they agreed. Of course, there were other conventions that opted to present all of their suggested changes as a single question to the voters — that’s what they did in 1967 and, in that year, the voters rejected the proposal. That’s the point: By calling a convention we’re not “writing a blank check” to delegates, but rather we’re asking them to face the tough questions that many have been asking for years. Once called, delegates will be elected, a convention will be held, debates will be had, proposals will be put forward, delegates will vote, and delegates will put before the people of New York State their proposal(s) — the people will decide the fate of those proposals.
Whether you vote in favor of or in opposition to the question of whether a constitutional convention should be held, I hope you might consider this one final point: A convention gave birth to a document that has over the course of more than 240 years been replaced, revised, and amended. At each juncture of our state’s history, the constitution has been changed or amended to meet the unique demands of a changing world. It’s the specificity and detail of a state constitution that makes it unique when considered alongside the U.S. Constitution and it’s that specificity that at times necessitates a thorough review and potentially a revision. While there are unknowns with a convention, we should realize that in much the same way that the people decide whether a convention is called, it’s the people who also possess the power to elect the delegates and who will ultimately decide the fate of a convention’s proposals.
Tuesday, November 7th is election day, make sure you vote and be sure to turn over your ballot and choose either “yes” or “no” on the question, “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution, and amend the same?”
Excelsior. Ever upward.