So what do you think about the Constitutional Convention?
If you are an average New Yorker, even an above-average one in terms of information and civic engagement, the likely answer is: “What’s that?”
The official answer is easy. If the proposal gets on the ballot this year in an off-off year with little statewide turnout expected and if voters approve, then they would get the chance to vote for delegates in next year’s general election, one which is likely to have a decent turnout because it will have races for Congress and statewide offices including governor.
And then, the process would continue with a convention in 2019 and any changes approved by the delegates going on to seek voter approval that year, another off-off one.
The idea of a convention has an innate appeal to those who believe that the state does not serve its residents well or fairly, a rather large group. But it also has made some of those same people nervous because they cannot be sure what changes would come out of the convention and what forces would be working to twist things to their own advantage.
We already have a way to change the state Constitution in a more measured fashion by having an amendment approved by two successive sessions of the Legislature and then going on for public approval on the general election ballot.
One recent change essentially put legislators and the party bosses who control them in charge of drawing district lines for Congress, the state Assembly and the state Senate forever. That’s not the way it read, but it’s what happened. So there are those who believe that the only way to take back control from those bosses, to implement the kinds of changes that would make New York’s government more responsive, is to go for wholesale change rather than the present retail model.
As with all issues involving state government in New York, you can find dueling opinions that come close to canceling each other out. The convention is either an honorable attempt to simplify and modernize our guiding document or a power grab by those who already wield most of the power. It is either going to be a chance to open up the system or a sneaky means of keeping it closed.
Much of this depends on the level of information and energy that voters bring to the task. If they understand what the convention can and can’t do, make sure that delegates are not party hacks and their cronies, fully understand the proposals that come out of the convention and then carefully examine and pass judgement on each provision, then this could be the jolt that New York needs.
Those good government groups who are in favor of a convention and who are sure that it can be the vehicle for progress that they contend it is need to make sure that this process will live up to its promises, that voters are fully informed and engaged, that the sleight of hand approach that made gerrymandering a protected constitutional right in previous election is not a preview for what is to come.