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Constitutional Convention Ballot Question at a Glance

by Charlene Weigel – 

The November 7 ballot will include a deceptively simple question, “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” If New Yorkers accept that invitation, they will elect delegates to a 2018 drafting convention, and likely vote on a new state constitution in 2019.

The Federal Constitution is brief, about the length of a college term paper. It cedes any power not reserved for the federal government to the states. The New York State Constitution bulges with that ceded power, spanning 43 pages and 60,000 words. The State Constitution impacts New Yorker’s daily lives. Provisions include the “Forever Wild” clause protecting the Adirondack Park; prevention of public funding for private schools; regulations forcing townships to rely on property taxes; and terms and salaries of elected officials. It regulates bonds and bingo, corporations and canals, ski trails and social welfare. All could change after November 7.

The question may be clear, but the response is not. An early summer survey of the “10591” Facebook group indicated that 70% of respondents did not know about the upcoming ballot. Not surprising, since the question appears once in a generation – every 20 years. Since 1776, the state has held nine conventions, four of which have produced a new constitution. The current constitution dates to 1894. With more than 225 amendments, it has become a legislative labyrinth.

Should the constitution be changed? Nearly half of rivertowns’ respondents said they did not know. Many asked for information on ramifications and alternatives.

The alternative to a convention is the amendment process. An amendment must first pass both the Assembly and Senate in a single legislative session. It is then proposed again in the legislative session that convenes after the next general election to the Assembly. If the identically worded amendment passes both houses, the amendment is then presented to voters. If voters agree, it is adopted into the constitution. The series of “ifs” are a high hurdle.

The convention route faces its own challenges. If New Yorkers vote yes this fall, in 2018 they will vote on delegates. The convention will convene on April 2, 2019. History suggests that voters would be presented with a draft from that convention in November 2019. If the referendum passes, a revised or brand new constitution will go into effect January 1, 2020. If the proposal is voted down, the current constitution stands.

Delegates have broad powers. They decide whether to present a series of amendments (as happened in 1938), or re-write the document (most recently in 1967 – it didn’t pass). Delegates decide whether the proposed constitution will be voted up or down in its entirety, or whether voters can consider individual articles or amendments. Constitutional scholars attribute the defeat of the proposed 1967 constitution to the “all or nothing” requirement imposed on voters.

Who are these delegates? Each State Senate District will elect three with an additional 15 delegates-at-large elected on a statewide basis. There are few restrictions. Sitting legislators and judges can, and often have, run. While knowledge of those systems may be useful, these delegates would be writing their own job descriptions including salary, terms, campaign finance, etc. Ordinary citizens can run, but New York election law is complicated and delegates with political experience or party backing may navigate the maze more successfully. It is clear that New Yorkers will need to choose delegates carefully.

The price tag for a convention is high. A briefing paper by the League of Women Voters of New York State estimates that the 1967 convention would cost over $330 million in today’s dollars. Delegates could write provisions to recover all or more of that investment by streamlining government, or changing rules for funding or covered programs. Any changes would impact taxpayers as well as recipients of constitutionally mandated programs and protections.

The first words of both the United States and the New York State Constitutions are “We the people.” On November 7, the people will decide whether to send 204 of their fellow New Yorkers to Albany to rewrite the constitution. Or wait until 2037 for their next invitation.

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