The time has come to decide whether or not New York will hold a convention to open up its lengthy and convoluted Constitution to review and redrafting. Every 20 years, New York State has a referendum on the ballot allowing voters to decide Yes or No on a constitutional convention.
But State Legislators have come out swinging against the convention. And when public officials and special interests use fear tactics to protect the status quo, we must exercise our democratic rights in order to enact positive change.
If the majority of voters vote against the convention, no convention will take place and business will resume as usual. If instead, the Yes vote wins, a slate of delegates representing every New York district will be elected in November 2018 to begin the Constitution amending process. Starting the first week of April 2019, the delegates will convene in Albany to discuss and vote on possible amendments. And in November 2019, the referendums will appear on the ballot.
Most New Yorkers have no idea that this historic process exists, but the fear campaign against holding a convention has already begun.
Labor unions have voiced their opposition to the convention, citing fear of special interest groups dominating the delegation process and threatening to remove workers rights altogether. Unions are the largest donors to State Democrats, so their stance against direct constitutional reform makes sense. Delegates could decide to reduce union lobbying power by putting a cap on campaign contributions from non-individual donors.
Other fears have been expressed by environmental protection and social welfare advocates: possible rewrites or deletion of the historic Forever Wild Act, which outlines parcels of lands in the Adirondacks that are to remain public, and the Social Welfare Act, which grants state welfare protections to low income New Yorkers regardless of status.
Helen Hershkoff, Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU, stated her concerns at a panel on March 15th hosted by the New York Bar Association. “I trust the voters. What I don’t trust are the campaigns that will be mounted against social welfare,” she said in response to a question I posed regarding whether or not the fear is justified.
Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke in favor of a convention last year with intentions to allocate a portion of the 2017 state budget into preparation for the referendum vote in November.
However, in his January budget announcements he failed to mention it at all. In an Daily News article he said he “conceptually” supports the idea of a constitutional convention, but added that “you have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that”.
State Assembly Minority Leader Republican Brian Kolb has introduced the People’s Convention Reform Bill that does exactly that. The proposed legislation bars any sitting elected officials from running as delegates, mandates that delegates have to be non-partisan, eliminating ties to party influence and preventing special interests from funding campaigns.
However, a spokesperson for the Minority Leader expressed doubt that such a reform bill will pass in a chamber where the majority is happy with the status quo and opposes a convention.
Many government reform groups, such as Citizens Union, argue that the constitution is outdated and in dire need of outlining new laws that will facilitate free and fair elections, end gerrymandering, enact term limits, increase voter access, and end private campaign financing. These types of reform threaten politicians in power, so we cannot expect them to act on it themselves.
Ultimately, the decision lies in the hands of the voters, and with the current climate of resistance, constructive change can be achieved.
Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird