In the Bronx, most anyone hearing about a constitutional convention in the news might be tempted to think of that one that happened in Philadelphia 250 or so years ago — you know, the one that kicked off with “We the people.”
Only in New York State, some elected officials and political groups have a very different kind of constitutional convention on their mind. And voters will get a chance to decide just how big of a talking point it will be for the next three years this November as they’ll decide whether or not they want to convene the first state constitutional convention since 1967.
A constitutional convention in New York would bring 204 elected delegates to Albany — three from each state senate district, and 15 at large — where they would spend a year reconstructing the state’s constitution. It’s something the constitution itself says can take place every 20 years — and any law, provision or amendment is up for grabs.
But political activists and elected officials are deeply divided about the inherent risks and benefits of such an endeavor.
On the one hand, groups like Citizens Union and well-known activist Bill Samuels argued last week at a forum designed to raise awareness for the relatively unknown ballot item at the Bronx Museum for the Arts that a convention is the best and only way to fix systemic issues in Albany.
Chief among them, Priscilla Grim of Citizens Union said, include election reform — like establishing early voting and same-day registration, as well as campaign finance reform.
Sweeping changes to New York’s electoral system would be nearly impossible to accomplish during the regular legislative cycle in Albany, Grim noted, as the existing document actually requires that all voting be done on election days.
Without a convention, she said, New Yorkers would have to rely on lawmakers in Albany — who have not been able to score significant ethical and election changes — to ratify a constitutional amendment to make these reforms possible.
“We want to expand the platform of democracy to as many people as possible,” she said at the Aug. 9 forum.
Other line items that a convention could potentially codify include securing protections for women and transgender people, as well as term limits in Albany.
“We know how dysfunctional Albany is,” Grim said. “Citizens Union supports the convention because our democracy is broken.”
But not everyone sees it that way. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz was blunt in his admonition of a “yes” vote, calling it “a very bad idea.” One of the principal reasons for that, he said, is how those 204 delegates would be selected.
A vast majority of the delegates elected in 2018 would be selected by state senatorial districts, which Dinowitz said — based on the current Republican control of the state senate — would make progressives a minority in constitutional talks.
“The senate lines were drawn in a very partisan manner so there would be an advantage there for Republicans,” he said. “They can do anything and everything to change any provision of the constitution. There are certain provisions in the New York State constitution that would be horrible if they were abolished.”
The risk of Republicans controlling the convention, Dinowitz said, is made worse by the fact there are no enforceable campaign finance laws — an issue proponents of the convention would like to fix — to keep lobbyists from influencing exactly who gets to participate in the election.
“There is nothing to stop the Koch brothers — I’ll use them as an example — from spending $100 million to try to kill unions or allow construction in Adirondacks State Park,” he said.
Of course, Democrats do technically hold a majority of seats in the state senate, even if Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn caucuses with Republicans and votes the conservative line on most issues. Adding to that point, Amber Sexton, an activist for March Forward New York who spoke at the forum last week, said she doesn’t believe that a majority of voters throughout the state would elect hard-line conservatives to the convention.
“Every time New Yorkers have voted to change the constitution themselves, they have always added rights,” Sexton said. “Today’s progressives can use this tool to bring the constitution and New York into the 21st century.
Many of the provisions of the state constitution that other activists fear losing, Sexton said, actually came from prior conventions. She pointed to the 1821 convention, which granted the right to vote to black men and in 1938 that helped establish the existing labor protections as examples.
Sexton pointed to the total number of progressive voters in New York against conservatives — more than 2-to-1 —which she said would be a particular advantage in electing the 15 at-large delegates that all New Yorkers will get to vote for.
“If you believe that a majority of New Yorkers are anti-progress, anti-labor, anti-gender equality, anti-human rights, if they are in some kind of reactionary mood,” she said, “I’d really like to know where the evidence for that comes from.”
But the idea of convention still draws a great many detractors: Despite the fact the referendum for a constitutional convention automatically appears on the ballot every 20 years, New Yorkers have not voted to hold one since 1938. The last convention was held in 1967, convened by the legislature. But their changes weren’t ratified.
That might at least in part be due to the strange political alliances formed to oppose a constitutional convention, Grim said. That opposition transcends both sides of the political aisle, and even brings together other unlikely allies, like the National Rifle Association and major gun control activists.
“If we as New Yorkers have more of a say in how government is working, then the way they have been working is going to fundamentally shift,” Grim said.
Despite not having voted for a convention in 80 years, groups like Citizens Union think this November might be different for New Yorkers. Groups in support of the convention say they want to inform as many people as they can about the referendum.
Supporters also have packaged the idea of a convention as a chance to use the state constitution to protect communities of color, LGBTQ communities, the environment, immigrants, and various other progressive values from sweeping changes in the federal government and the presidency of Donald Trump — who has a 30 percent approval rating in the state, according to a Syracuse University poll released in late May.
And despite efforts on the part of both Republicans and Democrats, a Quinnipiac University poll from July 13 found 55 percent of New Yorkers support the idea of constitutional convention as opposed to just 30 percent who don’t. That poll surveyed more than 1,100 people, and has a margin of error of 3.9 points either way.
Those polls aren’t influencing Gov. Andrew Cuomo or Mayor Bill de Blasio, two other unlikely allies. Even state Sen. Jeff Klein, co-majority leader of the senate and leader of the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference, has flatly opposed the referendum, pointing out the risk of losing labor protections.
“We must stand with our labor brothers and sisters and vote ‘no’ to a constitutional convention,” Klein said in a statement. “We must protect the citizens of New York State from moneyed interests whose deep pockets can vastly influence the outcome of a constitutional convention.”
But there is a real possibility voters could come out in support of the convention come Nov. 7. And if New Yorkers do vote “yes” on the referendum in November, it will take three years — and, according to Dinowitz, somewhere in the ball park of $10 million — to make a convention happen. And opponents of the idea will continue to ride on the risks and costs of a constitutional convention as good enough reasons to vote “no” right up to election day.