On Nov. 7, voters across New York State will have the opportunity to choose their state senators, state assembly members, local judges and municipal representatives. The most important vote of the year, however, is printed on the back of the ballot, the first of three statewide ballot proposals. This proposal, placed on the ballot once every 20 years starting in 1977, calls for a constitutional convention to rewrite the Constitution of the State of New York. The decision as to whether or not to call a constitutional convention has been hotly debated this year, with no clear indication of which way the measure will land. Recurring polls by the Siena College Research Institute indicate a steady decrease in support from 63 percent in February 2017 to 44 percent this month, with an increase in opposition from 24 percent to 39 percent in that same time span. However, an October 2017 Siena poll found that only 26 percent of respondents knew either “some” or “a great deal” about the New York State Constitutional Convention; 49 percent that same month said they knew nothing.
Given the power of a constitutional convention, we at The New Paltz Oracle are obligated to at least try to help that 49 percent. Despite the firm partisan lines that have been drawn in political sands as of late, support and opposition of and for the Convention have less to do with political alignment than they do an evaluation of the riskiness of such a convention. It’s why the Convention is opposed by pro-choice Planned Parenthood as well as pro-life New York Right to Life Committee; the left-leaning Working Families Party and the Conservative Party of New York; and legislature heads, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Republican State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. The proposal has also been rejected by the New York Civil Liberties Union, as well as labor unions like New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
One fear by many is that the Convention will not represent everyone equally. The Convention would be composed of 204 delegates—three from each of the 63 state senate districts and 15 at-large delegates representing the entire state—but state senate districts are often subject to gerrymandering, the redrawing of district boundaries so as to give specific groups an advantage. Another major fear held by opponents of the Convention is the potential influence on delegates by special interest groups. Once special interest groups gained that clout, they could then roll back a range of protections currently established by the Constitution. The nonprofit Adirondack Council published a guest column in The Post-Standard last month warning of the potential damage a convention could do to the “more than 3 million acres of public forests in the Adirondack and Catskill parks” protected by the “Forever Wild” clause of the Constitution’s Article XIV. Others worry that the Convention poses a threat to Article XVII of the Constitution, which establishes the government’s role in social welfare, mental health care, and criminal corrections. Labor unions, some of the most ardent critics of the Convention, have expressed concern that a “yes” vote will come at the cost of union protections like workers’ compensation, collective bargaining in the public sector and mandates against the cutting of public pensions.
With these risks, however, come great rewards. New York State is visibly rife with corruption, and little has been done by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, himself an active participant in all of it. The Post-Standard—which officially endorsed the Convention last week—reported in May 2016 that 29 state officials had been convicted of ethics violations since 2003. Despite this, there were zero ethics reforms passed in 2016 amidst convictions against both a former Speaker of the Assembly and a former State Senate Majority Leader. Rather than trust politicians to write their own ethics guidelines, a Convention would place the power directly into the hands of the people.
The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) has shown support for the Convention, arguing that it is a necessary step towards “reorganizing and streamlining the state’s confusing court system and simplifying the voter registration process.” The current Constitution maintains 11 trial courts, with New Yorkers often forced to spend extra time and money settling legal disputes in different courts; according to NYSBA, “a domestic violence victim seeking protection and a divorce may be required to appear in three courts.” Furthermore, barriers to voting could be lifted, which would empower more New Yorkers to exercise that right. While many states offer registration on Election Day, New York’s deadline is a month prior, which may partly illustrate why New York is ranked 42nd in voter turnout among all states.
A constitutional convention would also make possible a rearrangement of the convoluted relationship between state and municipal government. Article IX of the Constitution, known informally as the “Home Rule,” granted a level of self-governance to local governments often unseen in other states by ensuring them certain rights and privileges without the inference of state government. The authority of the Home Rule, however, has been dampened by both the “State preemption” doctrine, which prevents local governments from enacting laws that contradict state laws, and the “State concern” doctrine, which suspends the Home Rule if a local matter is deemed to be of concern to New York State. The State has also used its authority to issue “unfunded mandates,” regulations that municipalities must follow despite receiving no funding to follow through on those regulations; the State, for example, sets the salaries for district attorneys rather than individual counties, which causes local taxes to increase as a means of absorbing the extra salarial costs. With a new Constitution potentially comes a less malleable Home Rule and hopefully a less overbearing state government.
Though the aforementioned concern with gerrymandering and its effect on the delegate selection process is legitimate, every single proposal will ultimately be presented to the voters of New York during the 2019 election for them to either approve or dismiss. Following the 1967 Constitutional Convention, voters were presented with a package of reforms—either all of the measures could be approved or all could be dismissed—that they voted down due to a single amendment that would have allowed New York State to fund parochial schools.
This entire debate boils down to the level of faith one has in the Convention’s protective mechanisms and the integrity of the average New York voter. A constitutional convention is a huge opportunity for positive reform, but it involves putting decades of already-established reforms at risk. We at The New Paltz Oracle cannot tell you how to fill in the back of your ballot next month; we only ask that any decision made is an educated one. The magnitude of the outcome will be too high to have been decided with minimal information.