Why You Should Vote YES for a New York Constitutional Convention

Categories Politics

On November 7, New York voters will be asked a question that’s asked of voters every 20 years: “Shall there be a Convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?” If a majority of voters vote “yes,” New York voters will select delegates on Election Day 2018. The convention will be held in 2019. If voters vote “no,” the question goes away until it’s asked next in 2037 and there will be no “ConCon” in 2019.

TruthSayers asked around among its politically aware contacts for some informative articles both supporting and opposing a Constitutional Convention. Today, we have an article by Emily Adams, co-chair of Tompkins County Progressives, explaining her reasoning behind a “yes” vote. Tomorrow, we’ll have an article by John O’Malley, legislative director of CWA Local 1180, explaining why he’s voting no on Proposal One.

If you have an opinion you’d like to share about the Constitutional Convention or any other question on the ballot this year, contact TruthSayers editor Josh Brokaw at josh.brokaw@truthsayers.org.

The argument in favor of a ConCon

By Emily Adams

As the co-chair of Tompkins County Progressives and an executive board member of the New York Progressive Action Network, I’ve been watching the debate on the New York State Constitutional Convention with great interest.  Although neither organization has decided to take a position in favor or against a “ConCon,” I personally have decided to come out in favor.  I would like to share the reasons why I have made this difficult decision, in the form of various questions that I have asked myself during the process.

What is a Constitutional Convention anyway?

A Constitutional Convention is a chance for delegates to a convention to open up a constitution and make changes.  The delegates can add protections, or remove protections.  They can update language, improving efficiency and clarity in the document and in the functioning of the government, or make a mess of it.  Right-wingers would love to open up the U.S. Constitution – because they control a majority of state legislatures and could push their agenda on the whole country this way.  In New York, a state Constitutional Convention would not be able to change those things that are protected by the U.S. Constitution, so there is less risk involved.  Plus, our delegates would be elected in New York, and we are a blue state.  But there are nevertheless still risks associated with holding a state ConCon.

What are the risks to opening up the New York Constitution?

Basically, majority rules, and everyone worries that their side won’t be in the majority.  The National Rifle Association and various right-wing groups worry that crazy liberals will be in the majority and that we’ll push for more protections for residents, the environment and so on.  (They have good reason to fear that….)  Lefties worry that Big Moneyed Interests from out of state will buy off the delegates and brainwash our voters into supporting the horrible proposals that get made.  (I don’t doubt that they will try their best….)

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New York State Capitol. Photo by Matt H. Wade CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia

So, if there are risks, why should I support a ConCon?  

The NYS Constitution is terribly, terribly out of date.

The last time delegates met and tried to revise it, was in 1967.  At the time, my parents had a party line and the town switchboard operator patched calls through to our whole street.  The proposed revisions to the Constitution did not get ratified by the voters in 1967, however. So New York is still operating under a Constitution that was most recently updated in 1938.  1938!

In 1938, women had only recently won the right to vote. The civil rights movement wasn’t even on the horizon.  As a result, our current Constitution says nothing about privacy, cybersecurity, and so forth.  It talks about basic education through the 8th grade.  There is nothing about reproductive choice, equal pay for women, rights for the LGBTQ community, rights to clean air and water, rights to healthcare, criminal justice issues, and so forth.  The world has changed a lot since 1938.

Albany, like Washington, is a swamp.

Everything about it is corrupt.  We won’t see any progress on that front until we have election reform and get big money out of politics.  We need to end gerrymandering, adopt term limits, end New York’s ridiculous 6 to 9 month advance deadline to register to vote with a political party, close campaign funding loopholes, support small donor matching on campaigns, allow early voting, and bar outside income for state legislators. Until we do those things, we won’t get real change.  A ConCon is a way to force those changes, with or without the cooperation of those who are in power right now and benefiting from the system the way it is.

A new state Constitution could save New Yorkers millions of dollars.

Yes, there will be one-time costs associated with holding a Convention (estimated at less than $50 million), but these will be dwarfed by potential savings ($600 million per year, alone, if delegates fix our archaic court system).  The annual budget for the two houses of the state legislature is $220 million, by way of comparison.

Donald Trump is President.

If he has his way, many protections at the federal level will be gone by the time he leaves office.  If the country loses the Affordable Care Act, anti-discrimination and hate crime legislation, and freedom of reproductive choice, to name a few examples, we could still be protected in New York if we put clear policy directives and standards into our own Constitution.  We can also add language into our constitution that counteracts Trump’s attempts to make life as easy as possible for millionaires and billionaires.

The Resistance Movement needs something to fight FOR.

Seasoned activists and new activists alike are getting depressed, overwhelmed, and burned out by the constant barrage of bad news.  We have to go on the defensive in a new direction every day, just to try to maintain the status quo.  Unfortunately, the status quo was never very inspiring – which is largely why Clinton couldn’t beat Trump last year – and it is hard to get new recruits to the movement.  If we had something positive and exciting to work towards, more people would get involved (the same way thousands of people who had never done anything political before, got up and got involved in Bernie’s campaign).

Emily Adams. Photo provided.

But… I am still concerned.  Aren’t there other choices?  

Sure, let’s take a look at a few. We could amend the constitution via legislative action.

This has happened more than 200 times since the New York Constitution was written, including 15 times in the last 20 years.  But none of these amendments addressed real reform.  On November’s ballot, there is one such revision being offered, an amendment that would withhold state pension benefits from retired legislators who were convicted of crimes related to their work.  It will affect a few dozen politicians, years after their criminal behavior.  After decades of corruption scandals in Albany, and a huge outcry from the public, this is the best they could do?  The legislature is simply not motivated to take up any reforms that might hurt them or upset the status quo.  If we want reforms, especially within the legislature itself, we will need to have a Constitutional Convention at some point . This fact was recognized by the delegates and voters when they wrote the provision for a ballot question every 20 years.

Can’t we wait and hold a Constitutional Convention in a few years, after the “Trump 24/7 crisis period” is past?

Well, maybe.  The laws say that the question about holding a Convention must come up every 20 years, at a minimum, but the people could ask their legislators to put the question on the ballot at an earlier time, as well.  But these legislators are the ones who do not want to lose their seats or their gifts from lobbyists, so what are the chances that they will put the question on the ballot on their own initiative?

We could rally our forces to elect a new governor and get rid of the Democratic state senators who caucus with Republicans (known as the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC)

These are both worthy aspirations, and would go a long way toward making it possible to amend our constitution via legislation.  However, corruption is a bi-partisan affair and simply flipping senate control to the Democrats will likely not be enough to bring real reform in the near future.  Also, it might not be too hard to do both things: get the results we want from a Constitutional Convention AND regain control of the state senate and remove Governor Cuomo.


If the Yes vote wins, how do we make sure that we get the results we want?

If the yes vote wins in November, political parties will hold primaries next September to choose their delegates, and everyone will vote on delegates in November 2018.  Three delegates will be elected from each state senate district, along with 15 at-large delegates.  The Democratic Party and the Republican Party will certainly each field a full slate of candidates, and the Working Families Party and Green Party might try to do the same.  I hope they will either cross-endorse or remain silent, because it is very important that “our side” doesn’t split the vote and allow right wingers to become delegates .  In any case, we need to run progressives in Democratic primaries, at a minimum.  If our progressives lose in the primaries, most likely we will need to support the winning Democrats, even if we aren’t especially fond of them.  We might be able to consider other options.

The goal would be to get 103 Democratic delegates (or delegates who will caucus with Democrats) to keep the control of the whole process out of the hands of the far right.  Among these 103 Democratic-caucusing delegates, it would be good to have 30 progressives.  These delegates could act together to force the majority Democrats to listen to their demands, in much the same way as the Freedom Caucus is able to get their way, in the US House of Representatives.

Where will we be able to elect 30 progressive Democratic delegates?  Most likely in NYC, where the Republican Party is so weak that their candidates often lose by 70 or 80 percentage points.  If a progressive candidate can win in the primaries in NYC, then they are a shoe-in for the general election.

It’s worthwhile to note that, even though our State Senate is controlled by Republicans, our state senate districts are majority Democratic, in voter registration and voting habits, and more so now than during previous conventions.  Out of 63 Senate Districts, 40 voted for Hillary Clinton (49 have more registered Democrats than Republicans, and 55 voted for Obama in 2012).  Many voters upstate voted for a Republican state senator (or an IDC senator) and then crossed over to vote for Clinton or Obama.  There are also districts, like Tom O’Mara’s, where the Republican won the senate seat but the Democrat (Leslie Danks Burke) outperformed Clinton significantly.  I might be hopelessly naïve, but I see reason to be optimistic in these numbers.  It seems logical to think that Democratic candidates will do as well as Clinton, or out-perform her, on average, all else being equal.  It also seems logical to think that Republican candidates will not do as well as Trump did last November, as his popularity is falling rapidly.

Here is one “road to victory”, based on the information above:  In the 26 senate districts that voted for Clinton by more than 20 points, we can expect to get 78 Democratic delegates and of those, hopefully 26 progressives (1 in 3).  In the other 14 districts that Clinton won, but more narrowly, we can aim to get 14 Democratic delegates, 2 of whom are progressive.  Among the at-large delegates, we can aim for 11 out of 15 to be Democrats, 2 of whom are progressive.  That would bring us to a total of 103 Democratic delegates and 30 progressives.  Anything above that is bonus.  To me, this looks eminently doable.

Assuming we meet or exceed the 103/30 goal, the rest should be relatively easy.  Delegates will form committees and draft proposals and seek public input, and put together one package (or more likely, several smaller packages) for the voters to ratify.  The public supports Medicare for All, criminal justice reform, an ERA, reproductive rights, environmental protections, election reform and all our other issues, by large margins.  The delegation would be ill-advised to put forth any proposal that would, say, limit the rights of workers or endanger Forever Wild.  There is no popular support for either of these measures.  Of course, Big Money could, and probably would, try to drum up support for bad proposals, using a mixture of lies and slick marketing.  So our 103 Democrats and the public would have to stay vigilant.

Historical precedent doesn’t always predict the future, but it is still interesting to note a few things about the 1938 Constitutional Convention.  The Republicans were in the majority because the Labor Party did not endorse all the Democratic candidates and ended up splitting the vote.  Nevertheless, the delegation put forward a number of proposals that were very progressive – including the Forever Wild clause and pensions for state workers.  They even crafted the pension language in such a way that the pensions would fall under US Constitutional protection, so that they couldn’t be taken away by any subsequent change to the Constitution in New York.  All this, while Democrats were in the minority!  This is perhaps not so remarkable when one considers that Constitutional Conventions are much more responsive to popular sentiment that entrenched politicians in legislative office.

What else do we need to think about?

We need to keep the public educated and engaged.  In previous ballot question years, the governor at the time set aside money to educate the public.  Governor Cuomo proposed $1 million for a preparatory commission in his 2015 budget, but both houses of the legislature immediately stripped it out.   It will be up to us.  Newspaper editorial boards across the state, to their credit and my surprise, have come out largely in favor of the ConCon and have provided many in-depth analyses.  We need to support them, remind them to keep it up, and especially support independent media, who will in turn also keep the pressure on the established media.

Transparency:  When the legislature and/or the ConCon delegates meet to decide on procedures, activists and the public need to speak up and demand that all discussions, committee meetings and public hearings  be livestreamed and recorded, for maximum transparency.  The Big Moneyed Interests are certainly out there, and we need to keep the whole process out of the shadows.

Unstacking the deck:  Currently, elected office holders are allowed to run for ConCon delegate and serve in both offices (and earn a salary from each), simultaneously.  It would be a cause for concern if most of our 103 Democratic delegates were also sitting politicians, because we could expect them to then resist a lot of the reforms we want to see happen.  Sitting politicians certainly would have an advantage in name recognition and might have an easier time getting elected.  One step we can take to “unstack” the deck is to recruit among retired politicians and among candidates who have recently run in the district but lost.  These people would be more likely to be reform-minded than those currently in office.  We can also put pressure on our elected officials, telling them we are paying them to work for us already – what added value will we get if we pay them double for the same work week?  I believe many of them, especially if they don’t serve as a state senator already, will be reluctant to run two election campaigns simultaneously.  They could overreach and end up losing both races.  (To be clear: it will probably help us to have some delegates with actual experience and actual frustration at Albany, at the table, so that we come up with the best and most effective reforms.)

Working with labor:  Labor unions have been funding nearly the entire “no” campaign, and there is a fair amount of “bad blood” building between union progressives and pro-ConCon-progressives.  Several myths are circulating among the public (for example, a myth that union pension contracts could be broken during a ConCon, a myth that a convention would cost around $350 million, and a myth that a non-vote will count as a yes-vote.)  Labor union leaders deny that they are responsible for spreading these rumors.  I have friends in the labor movement who are dismayed, and tell me that there are legitimate reasons to vote “no”, not these reasons, and those who are spreading the rumors are giving unions a bad name.  It is unfortunate.  I sincerely hope that all progressives will come together again after November 7th.  We will need labor union leadership to help recruit and elect good delegates, if the Yes vote wins, and they will need us to work hard with them on the legislative front, if the No vote wins .

I’m a team-player.  Who is supporting which side?

Polling shows that People of Color (blacks and Hispanics), people under 35 years old, and people earning less than $50,000 a year, are strongly in favor of a ConCon.  People who live in Union households, Republicans, and people earning over $100,000 a year are strongly against a ConCon.  Everyone else is more or less in the middle.  (see the crosstabs of the October 6th Siena College poll, here)  Organizations that support the “Yes” campaign include the League of Women Voters, Citizens Union, Effective NY, the People’s Campaign, The Black Institute, Restrict & Regulate, Forward March NY, New Kings Democrats, the NY State Bar Association and others. These are primarily good-government organizations and advocates for criminal justice reform.  Organizations that oppose the ConCon are primarily unions, as well as some environmental groups.  To date, money raised and spent on these two campaigns comes overwhelming from the unions, plus one millionaire who has a passion for progressive causes (Bill Samuels of Effective NY).  The “yes” campaign is being outspent many times over, as the (non-union) Big Moneyed Interests either ignore the situation, or bide their time (depending on who you ask.)

My Conclusion

I am voting yes, with hope and a measure of anxiety.  I believe we need a ConCon and that we can elect enough Democrats and progressives to get the results we would like.  I believe the process will be good for democracy.  I feel it is important for progressives to stand with young people, poor people, and black and brown people, because it will be essential to engage these demographics if we want to unseat Trump in 2020.  I do worry that our movement is lacking enough energy and motivation to overcome (potential) Big Money influence… but at the same time, I believe a robust ConCon process could be the perfect way to build up energy and motivation.  I certainly respect those who have been activists longer than I have been, and who sincerely believe that we won’t be able to counter Big Money influence.  If you don’t think we can elect 103 Democratic delegates including 30 progressives, while insisting on a high level of transparency from the delegation and while cultivating a high level of engagement from ordinary citizens, you should vote no.  I hope everyone will study the issue and make up their own minds.  This is an important vote with real consequences.  And unlike most votes we cast in New York, the result is not a foregone conclusion.

So… if we need a ConCon, what is our strategy for getting one?

The “yes” side does not have big money on its side (despite concerns to the contrary), so the only real way to get the word out is via social networks, social media, letters to the editor, and so forth.  Because the demographics that are mostly likely to favor a ConCon are young, poor, and black or brown, the Yes campaign needs to focus on those communities.

Featured image: Scene at the Signing of the  Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy, via Wikimedia.

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