Constitutional convention offers best hope for New York democracy
On Nov. 7, for the first time in 20 years, New Yorkers have the opportunity to break free from the gridlock of Albany and bring about meaningful reforms to state government that have stalled for years under the governor and the state Legislature. This year’s election brings with it the question of a state constitutional convention, and by voting “yes,” New Yorkers can take democracy into their own hands.
The opportunities that a convention brings to New York are abundant, from ensuring a right to clear air to giving local municipalities greater control over their affairs, three areas of state government in particular need of fixing: ethics, campaign finance and voting laws.
Let’s be honest. Our state government has simply failed to enact any meaningful ethics reform. Indeed, at least 34 state legislators have had to leave office over misconduct charges since 2000. That’s a shameful record of corruption that cannot continue. This January, Gov. Cuomo pledged, as he typically does year after year, to clean up state government, and yet the legislative session ended, once again, with no legislation addressing ethics and corruption in our state government. With a convention, New Yorkers can tackle corruption directly by amending the state constitution to, among other potential remedies, limit legislators’ outside income, impose term limits or create a truly independent oversight body to ensure public integrity.
Hand-in-hand with stronger ethics laws is the need for campaign finance reform. One in four state legislators ran unopposed in the most recent election cycle, and incumbents are practically guaranteed re-election. It’s no surprise then that those in power have been hesitant to make changes that would level the playing field — they benefit most from the status quo.
A system of public campaign financing would encourage new faces to enter into politics, and bring fresh ideas and attitudes to our government. A convention also presents the best way to limit the flow of money into elections by closing the infamous loophole in the state’s campaign finance laws that treats limited liability corporations as individuals.
A convention is also a prime opportunity to increase voter participation and further strengthen our statewide democracy. Top priority should be updating the state’s archaic voting laws. New York has some of the most restrictive rules on the books that lead it to be ranked almost last in the nation for voter turnout. By allowing early voting, same-day registration and more voting by mail, we can make it easier for New Yorkers to cast their ballots and make their voices heard.
Most of these ideas aren’t controversial or new. They’ve been around for years but are stymied because our leaders continually refuse to act.
A convention is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that lets citizens have direct input on changes to New York’s constitution. The convention relies on democratically elected delegates who meet and consider amendments to the state’s laws. While delegates lead the convention, the real power rests with the people. Any amendments proposed by the convention must be approved and voted on by New Yorkers.
A convention is the best chance to take action and make these changes that the state desperately needs. For a better New York, New Yorkers must vote yes for a convention on Nov. 7.
Randy Mastro is the chair of Citizens Union, which is based in New York City.