Constitutional convention confusion

In a few weeks, New Yorkers will be asked to vote on whether or not to hold a constitutional convention. I find it very curious that with the election so close, many voters still have no idea whether they should be in favor or opposed to this proposal — and that includes people who are politically active and well informed on most issues.

I couldn’t help but wonder why this is the case, so I did a little web browsing. By law, the question of whether or not to hold a constitutional convention must be put to a vote every 20 years. A publication put out by the Rockefeller Institute of Government and the Government Law Center at Albany Law School offers a possible explanation for why the issue is so poorly understood this time: “Historically, New York has organized a constitutional commission before the vote on the ballot question. This process helps identify issues likely to be considered by the convention delegates if one is called by the voters. This year a constitutional commission has not been funded or appointed by the legislature or executive” (http://www.rockinst.org/nys_concon2017/pdf/2017_09_106_Issues_Final.pdf).

The report goes on to identify 106 issues that could be open to change, although there is no way of knowing which of these the convention would actually address. So the usual efforts to educate the public and lay the groundwork for the vote was skipped this time. No wonder we are confused! It is like a doctor asking for an answer on whether to undergo surgery or not, without explaining what the risks and benefits would be.

Since voters are on their own, here are a few facts to consider before making this important decision. Although the League of Women Voters of New York is in favor of a “yes” vote, they recognize the downside: “Opponents argue that funding from outside interest groups could play a major role in delegate selection and result in a convention unduly influenced by special interests” (http://www.lwvny.org/programsstudies/concon/2017/ConstitutionalConven_brochure.pdf).

Moreover, here is what the president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, Elisabeth MacNamara, said about a national constitutional convention in 2016: “Everyone should be concerned what a runaway, topsy-turvy constitutional convention might do. Before we head into uncharted territory that could affect our basic principles of government and our individual rights, we need to make sure some basic rules are in place. … Any calls for a constitutional convention must have built-in protections to ensure it is not hijacked by a small minority” http://lwv.org/press-releases/constitutional-convention-needs-safeguards.

Are these protections to prevent special interests from controlling a convention in place? I haven’t seen any evidence that they are. Because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Citizens United allowing virtually unlimited political contributions, corporations, including out-of-state corporations, can exert enormous influence over a convention. I think a healthy skepticism is in order.

One of the issues of concern to many residents of the North Country is Article XIV of the state constitution, the “forever wild” clause that protects the Adirondack Park’s lakes, rivers and forests from degradation and destruction from logging, lease, sale and development. The Adirondack Council opposes a constitutional convention because it anticipates that special interests that support weakening the “forever wild” clause not only CAN control the convention but very likely WILL (Adirondack Council, “State of the Park 2017-2018: Threatened,” p.10).

If the constitution needs changing, it can be done through the amendment process, and in fact, the New York State Constitution has already been amended 225 times. Not only is amending the constitution for a specific issue a better and safer alternative, it is also cheaper. Cost estimates for holding a constitutional convention range between $50 million and $108 million.

I am convinced that holding a constitutional convention would be like opening Pandora’s box — there is no compelling reason to do so, and we don’t know what kind of forces it would unleash. On Nov. 7, Election Day, I will be voting “no” on Proposal 1.

Rosalie Fontana lives in Bloomingdale.

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