New York voters will decide this November whether or not to hold a state constitutional convention in in 2019, the beginning of a process of amending our state laws that both advocates and detractors believe could dramatically change the way our state is governed.
The issue of whether or not to hold a constitutional convention is being hotly debated both on the East End and around the state, with some seeing it as chance to make state governance more democratic. Others worry that, depending on the delegates to the convention selected, it could weaken the power of unions or give lobbyists the keys to Albany in ways they haven’t gotten in the past, weakening environmental protections and public education.
The League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, which supports a new convention, held a forum on a new constitutional convention at the Southampton Town Senior Center in Hampton Bays Sept. 18.
New York places a proposition on whether to hold a constitutional convention on the ballot every 20 years, and its been voted down the past two times it came up for a vote.
The last time a convention was held was in 1967, after the state was mandated to hold an off-year convention after the U.S. Supreme Court found the state’s process of redistricting unconstitutional, said Carol Mellor, a Bridgehampton attorney who spoke passionately in favor of the convention at the LWV forum. Delegates to that convention voted to submit all their changes to the state constitution to the voters in one ballot proposition, which was voted down.
Delegates have a great deal of control over creating the terms of the convention, she said, which highlights the importance of selecting good delegates.
The process of creating a state constitutional convention is a prolonged one. If voters agree this year to hold a convention, potential delegates to the convention — three from each senatorial district and 15 at-large — will have to spend next year getting signatures on petitions to run. Those delegates names would be placed on the ballot for a public vote in the general election of November 2018.
The delegates would then get a chance to chose the parameters of the convention, to be held April through September of 2019, including the issues to be addressed, and how the propositions would be presented to the public for an ultimate vote on potential changes to the constitution at the 2019 November general election.
Ann Sanford pointed out that 29 percent of New York State voters cast ballots in the 2014 elections, a year when more than 50 percent of registered voters cast ballots in states that have the top 10 turnout rates in the country.
“New York has a problem, and that problem is voter turnout,” she said.
Some measures that she said could help voter turnout include allowing day-of voter registration. New York’s constitution currently sets the registration deadline 25 days before elections. She said the state could also allow for automatic voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles.
She also touted potential ethics and campaign finance reform that could come out of the convention, as well as the possibility of establishing a separate commission to draw district lines, which are currently drawn by the state legislature, which has a vested interest in how those lines are drawn.
“The people who benefit by district lines are the incumbents,” she said.
“It’s been argued that New York has long been run by three men in a room,” the governor, the senate majority leader and the speaker of the state assembly, said Estelle Gellman, who spoke on the case for a constitutional convention. “Many of the changes that the League would like to see, we have not been able to get through the legislative process.”
Opposition to the convention has come from a diverse bunch of groups, including Right to Life groups and Planned Parenthood, the NRA and the Ethical Humanist Society, said members of the panel, due to the potential for lobbyists to work to become delegates.
If this November’s vote passes, the League is supporting delegate candidate reform measures, including decreasing the number of signatures needed to get delegates’ names on next November’s ballot, which they believe will help encourage more citizens to step up and become delegates.
“We think that good things happen at conventions, and we should not act out of fear,” said Ms. Mellor.
Indivisible North Fork plans to hold a debate this Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Riverhead Free Library on the pros and cons of a state constitutional convention. All are welcome to attend.