The most consequential vote New Yorkers have on Nov. 7 might not be for a political candidate, but rather a “yes” or “no” answer to a 13-word question:
“Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?”
It’s a question required by the state constitution to appear before voters every 20 years. Should a majority choose “yes,” it will kick off a multiyear process, starting with election of delegates in 2018, followed by a convention in which changes to our state’s foundational document would be drafted.
There is no doubt that our constitution is in need of some improvements. Enshrining a woman’s right to choose, enacting true campaign finance reform and making voting more accessible are just some of the badly needed changes to our state government.
But the arcane rules that would govern the selection of delegates for a convention pose a grave risk for progressives. The vast majority of delegates would be selected along the lines of existing state Senate districts – a hypergerrymandered map drawn to the advantage of conservative candidates. And the election process would be highly vulnerable to a flood of outside funding from big money interests around the nation – groups likely to have a far right-wing agenda.
A likely chief culprit, billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, have already poured vast millions into advancing conservative legislation at the state level across the country. The election of convention delegates in New York would be obscure and downright confusing for many voters – making the process incredibly vulnerable to outside forces willing to spend aggressively to push right-wing candidates.
For all its flaws, New York’s current constitution has better protections than many other states for workers, the environment and low-income people. If conservative-leaning delegates are given the option to rewrite these provisions, it would put vital safeguards at risk.
Among the constitutional components that might be threatened are:
A mandate to provide for social welfare needs, which is among the strongest of any state in the nation.
A requirement to fully fund public sector pensions.
Forever wild guarantees, which protect natural treasures in the Adirondack and Catskill mountains.
Employee rights to workers’ compensation and collective bargaining.
A convention is not the only way to amend our constitution. That means there’s a safer option for those of us looking to bring about positive changes in this critical document. The state Legislature can make amendments through legislation, and has done so 222 times over the decades.
Yes, there are major political challenges to bringing about much-needed improvements to our constitution through the legislative process. But progressives should do the hard work of overcoming these obstacles rather than choosing the perilous route of a constitutional convention.
Not surprisingly, a wide array of progressive groups have lined up against the convention, including organized labor and groups advocating for the environment, senior citizens, LGBTQ New Yorkers, women’s rights and civil rights.
But this formidable coalition has its work cut out for it. Polls show the public is largely unaware of the weighty ballot question that they will be confronting on Nov. 7. Those telling pollsters they have an opinion are divided almost evenly between voting “yes” and “no.” Some voters might not even know to look on the back ballot sheet where the convention question will be located.
That means we have our work cut out for us in the waning days before voters go to the polls. All progressives should work hard between now and then to ensure that “no” wins, and that we avoid the risk of a giant step backward for our state.