October 4, 2017

Constitutional Convention: Vote Yes or No?

An Urban Matters Point/Counterpoint

The New York State Constitution requires that every 20 years the people decide if a constitutional convention should be held to consider amendments to the Constitution. That decision will be made by a statewide ballot question on Election Day, Nov. 7th. If a majority votes “no,” there will be no convention; if a majority votes “yes,” three delegates from each State Senatorial district and 15 at-large statewide delegates will be elected in November 2018, and convene at the State Capitol in April 2019. Amendments adopted by a majority of the delegates will be submitted to the voters via a statewide referendum and, if approved, go into effect on the following Jan. 1st.

Note to those reading this on mobile devices: Continue scrolling past the "Yes" argument to read the "No" argument in this point/counterpoint. 

Why New Yorkers Should Vote ‘Yes’: It Comes Down to Trusting or Fearing Democracy

By Dr. Gerald Benjamin

Are you tired of State government characterized by repeated criminal indictments or ethical lapses that have driven almost three dozen State officials from public office since 2000, including the Assembly Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader? Are you satisfied with partisan election administration and voter eligibility standards, resulting in one of the lowest voting participation rates in the nation? How about regular State intervention in local matters, imposing costs and bypassing the Mayor and City Council? Or entrenched incumbents continued in office, supported by gerrymandered districts and virtually unlimited campaign contributions from moneyed lobbyists? Are you happy with a complex, sprawling, often indecipherable judicial system that costs at least $500 million more each year than it should, while making justice harder to obtain for ordinary citizens? 

If these things bother you, this is your chance to do something about it. Once every 20 years our State Constitution says New Yorkers must hold a referendum on citizens’ satisfaction with State government.  It’s in the Constitution because delegates at a constitutional convention in the mid-19th century believed in democracy; they wanted the people to retain control of government, and knew that entrenched politicians and their cronies, beneficiaries of the status quo, had to be bypassed to achieve real reform.

The State Legislature, with more than half of its members from outside New York City, now decides on such matters as the size of sodas sold on Times Square, the availability of taxi service on city streets, and whether city shoppers can bring their groceries home in plastic bags.  The local “home rule” intended by the State Constitution has been undermined by State courts’ predisposition to favor State power over local authority, while City government is forced to pay for State programs.

A constitutional convention could:

·       Create a constitutionally based and empowered independent ethics watchdog.

·        Establish term limits for State elective offices.

·       Provide for truly independent, neutral legislative redistricting.

·       Force reconsideration of State constitutional provisions that undercut genuine home rule.  

·       Make our court system truly unified, enhancing efficiency and assuring greater access to justice

·       Assure competent, neutral election administration, and eased ballot access to increase voter participation.

The leaders of the Senate and Assembly majorities and organized interests that pay for their members’ campaigns don’t want you to vote “yes.” They like things just the way they are.  They want you to fear a convention because the constitutionally prescribed question used for the referendum is unlimited in its scope, and processes for delegate selection and compensation are also constitutionally fixed—all put into the Constitution to keep legislators’ hands off them.

Their “Stop me before I sin again” argument is particularly disingenuous. Legislators say, “Don’t call a convention because we will run to be delegates and win, and be paid double for the year (the Constitution requires paying delegates at the same rate as legislators). It will cost a lot, and be wasted: we’ll change nothing.”

They also make the exact opposite argument, conveniently ignoring that in Democrat-dominated New York every serious analysis of delegate election outcomes under current rules predicts a Democratic Party convention majority. “Democracy has lately produced bad results,” they say. ”Look at Trump. Bad people will be elected backed by massive dark money from malevolent sources, and they will make big changes to hurt you.” Fear is stoked with a list of horribles: Possible loss of pension guarantees for public employees; possible diminished rights; possible attacks on our cherished Adirondack Preserve.

In fact, the big money that’s appeared so far is from labor unions, and is being spent against, not for, a convention. In fact, existing pension contracts are protected under the US Constitution. In fact, many leading environmentalists favor a convention that can achieve further environmental protections. In fact, a convention can extend rights to heretofore constitutionally unprotected groups, or assure that protections aren’t lost due to action at the national level – e.g., regarding a woman’s right to choose.

There have been nine constitutional conventions in New York. They have a record of advancing rights, not diminishing them. Virtually every constitutional provision opponents now wish to protect was adopted by a convention. Essential reforms in the structure and operation of State government are achievable by no other means. Remember, any convention must have its actions adopted at referendum to be put in effect. Delegates interested in achieving a reform agenda will not want to provoke opposition by altering or undermining cherished protections.

Opponents say that government reform can be achieved through the Legislature, without the risks of an unlimited convention. The record proves the opposite; the Legislature has for decades failed to reform itself or the broader system. 

It comes down to balancing self- interest with the public interest, deciding whether to trust or to fear democracy.  We need an honest, viable, balanced, effective representative democracy in New York if all of us, in our growing diversity, are to prosper together in this century. A constitutional convention is the only path to this end. 

Why New Yorkers Should Vote ‘No’: Basic Rights Could Be Put at Risk

By Karen Scharff

Citizen Action of New York, an organization I’m proud to help lead, has worked for decades to make our democracy more responsive to ordinary New Yorkers through improving voting rules and creating a campaign finance system based on small donors instead of big money. We see democracy reform as crucial to achieving economic, racial, and environmental justice reforms. With that history, you might expect us to support holding a constitutional convention. But we don’t.

We oppose it because of the way delegates would be elected if it voters approve a constitutional convention this Election Day, and the role large corporate interests would have in shaping those delegate elections and the convention that would follow. There is too much at stake in our Constitution to risk a convention controlled by real estate developers, hedge fund managers, and other big money donors.

Many New Yorkers are unaware of all the rights the State Constitution defends. In fact, it provides more important protections than the U.S. Constitution for New York residents, especially people of color and working class people who are often underrepresented. These rights include:

·       Article II, which allows voters to identify themselves by signature at the polls (no ID required);

·       Articles I and V, which protect workers from wage theft and hours exploitation, and defend workers’ right to collectively bargain and receive benefits;

·       Article XIV, which safeguards environmental regulations, including the “Forever Wild” clause that keeps the Adirondacks and Catskills protected from development;

·       Article XI, which guarantees that every child in New York receives a sound basic education, and prohibits public funding for religious schools;

·       And Article XVII, which states that the aid, care, and support of the needy are public concerns that will be provided by the State.


Our State Constitution has been a foundation for our state’s progressive values. Take, for example, Article XVII, one of the many crucial articles at risk for compromise or outright elimination. It is the greatest protection that low- and middle-income New Yorkers have to keep them out of poverty. As programs and supports for so many people continue to be threatened at the Federal level, we cannot afford to put it at risk.

Giant corporations, charter schools, and the super-rich have their eyes on a convention. They see it as their chance to use their money and power to undercut the rights and values enshrined in our Constitution. Here’s a taste of what it could look like: groups will campaign to make stricter voter ID laws; lobbyists will work to delegitimize workers’ rights and reduce environmental standards and protections; supporters of privately run charter schools will look for a chance to take more funding and resources away from our kids’ public schools.

Given the big-money campaign finance landscape after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the vast resources these groups have at their disposal would allow them to throw millions of dollars behind electing the delegates of their choosing.

While a convention sounds great in theory, the fact is that rich and powerful individuals and their lobbyists would dominate the process and use their money to elect the vast majority of delegates. Delegates would be elected through State Senate districts, which are designed to guarantee that the big money interests who currently control the State Senate remain in control.  That’s the same State Senate that has blocked major pieces of legislation designed to strengthen our democracy and put working families first.

 In addition to the obvious rights at risks, past constitutional conventions have proven to be ineffective and full of uncertainties. There are no limits on the duration of a convention, no rules on what can be changed, and we don’t know who the delegates will be or who their paid staff will be. If a convention is approved, we’ll be left with far more questions than answers.

We don’t need to risk our rights to make important changes to our Constitution. There’s already a strong process for amending the Constitution that is effective and doesn’t risk endangering critical protections. It’s a process that has worked over 200 times, including seven times over the last five years.

Nearly 150 organizations and groups across the political spectrum have spoken out to oppose a constitutional convention, including Citizen Action of New York, the New York ACLU, Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts, Environmental Advocates of New York, and the Sierra Club.

New York is recognized as a national leader on important issues, and the values upheld in our founding document reflect that. A constitutional convention would open the entire document up for revision – not just select parts. That’s why I’m urging New Yorkers to vote “no” this November.

Dr. Gerald Benjamin is a distinguished professor of political science and Associate Vice President for Regional Engagement at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He is also director of the Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives at that school.


Karen Scharff is executive director of Citizen Action of New York.


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