By Karen Rubin
There is widespread frustration and anger over dysfunction in state government – an election system that makes New York’s turnout 46th among states; campaign finance that results in inordinate influence of money and personal contacts; and the recognition that “three men in a room” decide most issues.
That has a lot of people salivating over a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-write the state’s constitution to change the political power structure.
But what if the 204 delegates – three elected from each of the 63 senate districts plus 15 “at large” – decide instead to enshrine Citizens United as a foundational principle based on “cash” being equivalent to speech, or that there be no constitutional protection of a pension.
What if they make gun rights unassailable, but decide a zygote has more civil rights than a woman has a right to self-determination? What if the delegates decide to erase that key phrase “forever wild” that has been used to preserve the environment, and eliminate Article 17 which mandates the state provide “aid and care to the needy?”
This Election Day, Nov. 7, there is a referendum – mandated every 20 years – to determine whether New Yorkers want to hold a constitutional convention.
You have to flip over the ballot in order to find it, and most people haven’t a clue they will be faced with the referendum, let alone know to turn the ballot over. (This is a bad sign for how such a constitutional convention would function.)
It is interesting to hear progressives argue for and against the referendum in an Oxford-style debate on Brian Lehrer’s show on WNYC.
More interesting is how conservatives are just sitting back, likely salivating in the hopes that such a constitutional convention will be held, so they can tear up the progressive reforms won over the past century.
The reason why most progressives are fearful is how the constitutional convention delegates will be selected (in the second step of the three-step process): that is, by the very same broken system that undergirds the election system.
The delegates would likely be same state senators (who would get a second income) and their designees from gerrymandered districts; the apathy, naivete and general ignorance of the electorate too easily coerced by the flood of special-interest money.
The argument that Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in registration is the Exhibit A in the problem: even though Democrats outnumber Republicans, Republicans hold a one-seat disadvantage in the state Senate largely because of gerrymandering.
There is absolutely no reason to expect Democrats – let alone progressives or liberals – to have a majority in a constitutional convention.
Exhibit B is the fact that fair elections and ethics reform have wide support, but the state Senate has continued to block any such reform (notably, Jack Martins as state senator literally had the deciding vote that could have gotten fair elections through the Senate and into the Assembly where it was sure to pass).
Martins, now running for Nassau County Executive, makes another fair point why a constitutional convention would wind up hurting suburban communities like Nassau County: the overwhelming number of delegates will be from urban or rural communities while suburban communities will have little clout.
For example, they could end home rule and local (village) governments and special districts. (Democrat Laura Curran also opposes the referendum, citing the risk to women’s reproductive rights. Martins, who conceivably could become a delegate, is pro-life.)
State Senator Liz Krueger (D, WF-Manhattan, 28th district, a professed liberal who says she opposed a constitutional convention 20 years ago but now supports it, is confident that progressive elements will not be reversed.
“There are been five constitutional conventions since 1846, and none resulted in the loss of rights or protections. Instead, many rights have been added through the convention, rather than the legislature. We could make consequential changes.”
Relying on precedent though seems fool-hardy with ”never before” things happening every day.
Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the municipal employees’ union, is opposed, arguing that the same dysfunction and infection in the political system will be rampant in this process. “The influence of money would dominate… There is too much is at risk.”
The problem with the process is bundling good reforms with bad ones, the “horsetrading” that inevitably goes on (think of how the US Constitution was written to include slavery and give Delaware the same number of Senators as Virginia) – and a one-shot vote up or down for the new constitution. There are things that need to be changed, but constitutional convention is not the way” because then everything and anything is open to be changed or discarded, Garrido argues.
“We’ve changed the constitution over 200 times through the process that already exists. If people feel strongly they need to change things, it can be done without constitutional convention.”
It’s the all or nothing part of it that is so dangerous – you might vote for constitutional convention expecting easier access to voting, registration and early voting, term limits and campaign finance reform but find instead the constitution now permits public funding for parochial schools, an end to the guarantee of public education, and new religious “freedom” to discriminate against the LGBT community and deny women birth control.
I have a different idea: allow a full-on discussion of the constitution but mitigate the risk.
Let a constitutional convention come up with various changes reforms but (like the School Board’s process for a policy change) show the changes and let people vote on each one, rather than all or nothing. Then, have the new constitution voted on a second time.
Since this change would not be in effect by the time Nov. 7 rolls around, I would vote “no” on this referendum, and let the Legislature vote to hold a constitutional convention before another 20 years goes by.