Why citizens matter
Given Albany’s reputation for corruption and incompetence, angry citizens in a healthy, self-rule democracy would jump at the chance to outflank their inept state legislators. On Nov. 7, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to do just that — if they approve the creation of a constitutional convention.
If the ballot initiative is approved by the voters, it will set in motion a do-it-yourself lawmaking process likely to tackle a long list of important but neglected issues including health care, clean energy, repeal of campaign finance rules that sell our government to the highest bidder and denying pensions to officials convicted of duty-related felonies.
Will New Yorkers grasp this rare chance to drain the state’s political swamp?
Citizens in a self-rule democracy are responsible for their own political fate. That is why their support and active participation is needed to ensure convention delegates use this opportunity to put forward proposed amendments to the state constitution that will benefit the many, not the few. Since all proposed amendments must then be approved or rejected by the voters on Nov. 5, 2019, the risk that a few clever delegates can highjack the convention is eliminated.
But in both 1977 and 1997, citizens turned down a similar constitutional convention ballot initiative. According to Peter Galie, a retired Canisius College professor, it is likely these initiatives failed due to fear and ignorance.
In 1997, 929,000 citizens voted for a constitutional convention but were outdone by more than 1.5 million citizens against. I suspect many of these “no” voters feared powerful, well-organized, self-serving interest groups would dominate the convention.
Most alarming of all, more than 1.6 million voters left the ballot blank, an indication that they simply did not care enough to take the time to learn what was at stake and then cast an informed vote one way or another.
Fearmongering is once again a factor. Some fear public pensions are at risk (they are protected by existing law), others fear the status of the Adirondack Park could be harmed (polls show New Yorkers overwhelmingly love the park as is), and Buffalo school teachers — the very people that should be developing strong democratic principles in future citizens — are being advised to vote against the initiative.
America has long been in the grip of a dangerous case of citizen apathy and low rates of participation in their democracy. In poll after poll, a majority of the people have voiced their feelings of political powerlessness and report that elected officials quickly lose touch with voters back home.
But when citizens abandon their place in the public arena, a political vacuum allows self-serving politicians and powerful interest groups to control the governing process.
An August 2017 Siena poll found that 45 percent of New Yorkers say they will support a constitutional convention vote in November while 33 percent will oppose it. The remaining 22 percent said they did not know or had no opinion.
Will 2017 be remembered as the year in which New Yorkers finally took seriously their self-rule responsibilities? Or will the citizens of New York once again demonstrate they simply don’t give a damn?
Ronald Fraser lives in the town of Colden and is the author of “America, Democracy & You: Where have all the Citizens Gone?”