New York State voters need many things to improve their quality of life. They want better-paying jobs, affordable housing to keep our young talent from fleeing to other states, better roads to keep us safe and solutions to other critical needs.
What New Yorkers do not need, however, is a constitutional convention.
A Nov. 7 ballot would start in motion the calling of a constitutional convention in 2019. Ballot amendments normally don’t get much attention, which is why this year voters should turn over their ballots and cast a no vote on a constitutional convention. Besides being costly, voters should know that the last thing the state needs is another political gathering that would look like a copy of a state legislative session.
There are two major ways to change our state constitution. One is by a required vote every 20 years to decide whether to call for such a meeting. The second is for the State Legislature to pass ballot amendments, which voters cast votes on. There have been only two successful constitutional conventions since 1894, and both were called when the nation was in crisis. There might be a lot of political angst today about how our leaders are dropping the ball, but there is no legitimate reason for a state convention in the next two years.
New York’s constitution is a pretty good document. It protects the right to privacy, bars discrimination, preserves the environment, supports a series of worker protections and ensures help for the needy through medical care, homelessness and educational opportunity.
Somehow well-meaning convention supporters think that in four months, a 200-page document will create a new New York, free from crime, corruption, dirty air, complex laws and burdensome taxes.
The system works! In the past 200 years, voters have amended the state constitution more than 200 times. All of those changes were made at the suggestion of the legislature.
The last vote on a convention for our state took place in 1997, and it was soundly defeated. At the time of that defeat, respected groups that would have favored holding a convention urged its defeat and suggested that the pro groups begin a 20-year campaign to create a real agenda so that future voters would have a choice of whether to vote up or down. Twenty years later, there has been no real educational campaign, just random calls for reform by the “yes” side.
In 1967, I was a member of the Assembly and attended the 1967 convention as an observer. I saw what a fruitless effort it was to get the leaders of the convention to do anything other than protect the status quo. But don’t take my word for it. The groups opposing a convention this year are about as diverse as you could imagine. The long list of opponents, to name a few, includes the Conservative Party, the right-to-life movement, Planned Parenthood, civil liberties unions, the Sierra Club, every major union and the Adirondack Council.
There are also plenty of other reasons why a convention will not be free of politics. A person who wants to run as an independent delegate needs 3,000 signatures to get on the ballot, which means that a lot more are needed to stand up to any challenge. If you run as a major party candidate, you need only 1,000 signatures. That means any candidate backed by a political party is heavily favored to win.
There is no doubt that our political climate is toxic. That is no reason to accept a bundle of vague political promises by supporters with a real risk that the outcome won’t be a disaster.
Jerry Kremer is a former State Assembly member and is the co-author of “Patronage, Waste and Favoritism: A Dark History of Constitutional Conventions.”