Every 20 Years, New York Voters have the chance to rewrite their constitution any way they wish. Should they?
Guest Post By Memo Salazar
So there I was, sitting in a Brooklyn church on a Tuesday night in September, listening to a group of strangers yelling at each other about a monumental issue that few of us even know exists. Once every twenty years in November, New York voters must choose whether or not we want to rewrite or amend any or all of the New York State Constitution. 2017 is one of those years, and if enough New Yorkers vote yes, a Constitutional Convention will take place- composed of 204 delegates who will hammer out a proposal full of changes. Once they’re done, the rest of us will then accept or reject those changes in a future November vote, thereby engaging in a rare example of American Democracy at work. Sounds like an incredible opportunity for We, the People-right?
The panel in that Brooklyn church didn’t think so. All of them, including NY State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Michael Mulgrew (president of the United Federation of Teachers) and Public Advocate Letitia James were adamantly opposed to the idea of letting anyone tamper with the New York Constitution. They provided impassioned arguments, some of which provoked members in the audience to stand up and denounce those arguments as outright lies. As someone who was attending this meeting with little background information and no opinion either way, I could somewhat understand the audience members’ frustration: the entire night was one-sided and left many questions unanswered. Rather than returning home informed and educated, I went back full of questions, plunging myself into my own research. The few newspaper articles I found that even mentioned this topic were equally lacking in depth; how are New York voters supposed to educate themselves enough to make an intelligent decision on one of the biggest political questions they’ll ever have to answer? Perhaps the hope is that we won’t- that we’ll just go along with the loudest group, the one with the best ad campaign.
That’s obviously not okay. And so I’ve spent the last several weeks researching articles, listening to discussions and debates, and exploring the history of NY’s Constitutional Convention, all to discover the truth about a political decision that will impact New York residents at least as much as the 2016 presidential election has, if not more- it’s that big a deal. It’s a long read, yes- but all the information included here is incredibly important to understand. If you need to take breaks, take breaks- but read it all. To really grasp the significance of a Constitutional Convention, however, we need to start at the beginning.
We the People…
New York State’s constitution is a fascinating story in itself. It began its formation just a few days after the Declaration of Independence; adopted in 1777, it’s actually the document James Madison based the Federal Constitution on a decade later. Over the years, New York’s constitution has grown to be three times as long as that one, however, and includes lots of provisions and guaranteed rights that the Federal Constitution lacks- such as the guarantee of a free public school education for all and protection for our forests and wetlands. It has also, over the years, become a convoluted mess of patchwork rules, and even the town hall panel who advocated against changing it admitted what a beast our current version is to read (few people have actually made it through the whole thing.) Thomas Jefferson advocated often for the necessity of constitutional conventions once a generation for two reasons: first, because society changes, and laws need to keep up with those changes, rather than becoming stuck and outdated with the needs of a society from hundreds of years ago (that’s exactly the scenario which led the colonists to revolt against the British Crown in the first place.) Second, conventions are needed to keep legislators from becoming entrenched in their own power; letting “the people” rework the constitution every 20 years is the only check-and-balance we have to the otherwise monopolistic rule of our State Government.
“Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness… it is for the peace and good of mankind that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years should be provided by the constitution, so that it may be handed on with periodical repairs from generation to generation to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure.
[The European] monarchs instead of wisely yielding to the gradual change of circumstances, of favoring progressive accommodation to progressive improvement, have clung to old abuses, entrenched themselves behind steady habits and obliged their subjects to seek through blood and violence rash and ruinous innovations which, had they been referred to the peaceful deliberations and collected wisdom of the nation, would have been put into acceptable and salutary forms.” -Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.
I’ve yet to meet a person that works for a state government office in any capacity that doesn’t bemoan how entrenched (“corrupt” is the more common adjective) our legislators in Albany are, and how frustrating a process it is to attempt getting anything done through them. The whole point of Jefferson’s convention idea was to counter this inevitable aspect of human nature, and even though our Federal Constitution lacks this provision, fourteen state constitutions have adopted Jefferson’s suggestion of periodic conventions. New York voters have voted for a convention nine times, the last one being fifty years ago in 1967. Since then, voters have gone with “No” when the ballot question arises. So what about 2017?
The Argument Against
There are many powerful groups that are opposed to a Constitutional Convention, including labor unions and environmental conservation groups. The specific agendas may change, but the arguments are all quite similar, which is basically this one:
Our State Constitution is an incredible document that carries provisions and safeguards protecting everyone- rich and poor alike- in ways that go beyond what even the Federal Constitution provides. In an age of Trumpian recklessness, these State-provided rights become even more crucial (and endangered); a Constitutional Convention allows for the possibility of having these provisions eroded- or worse, fully gutted- by special interests taking over the convention process. This would destroy our much-needed social safety net. Whether it’s right-wing conservatives who resent government interference or specific individuals with deep pockets and Koch Brother-like agendas, those without progressive values can overrun those that have them, much like the 2016 election. We’re risking too much just for the vague hope of improving our constitution, and we already have a method in place for that: our legislature. Citizens need to trust in their elected representatives to fight for better laws, and not to take matters into their own hands through a convention.
It’s a compelling argument, and you can see why. Our Federal constitution has been under attack from all sides: Presidents seeking to expand Executive Power (Bush, Obama and Trump are all guilty of that one,) a Congress (both from Republican and Democratic camps) that passes laws favoring lobbyistsmore than the public, and Supreme Court judges who interpret the Constitution in blatantly illogical ways (Republicans are pretty much the lone culprits in this category.) And, of course, there’s the Koch Brothers et al, pulling strings from behind the curtain every chance they get. The more the Federal constitution erodes, the more important these State constitutions become, and none of us want to see more of our rights and protections taken away via a legal coup.
My dilemma, and yours as well, is in figuring out just how viable such a threat is here. How possible is an extremist takeover of our constitution? 90%? 10%? That’s what was sorely lacking in the town hall meeting I had attended: facts. Who are these rich special interest groups funneling money into a “VOTE YES” campaign in order to achieve their own selfish and secret goals? Do they really have their sights set on NY State? On the other hand, what could we actually accomplish with a convention? Is it worth all the trouble? We need facts to determine the risk, so let’s look at some.
If you eliminate New York City from the equation, a good chunk of the state seems pretty Red- not Blue- the “Vote No” camp warns us. And certainly, anyone who has spent time upstate understands how different “upstate” culture is from “downstate” culture; the divide, in some ways, is quite real. The numbers, however, tell a different story. Art Chang of The Sanctuary State Project has actually spent the time crunching them in order to figure out just what this political balance really is:
As unpopular as Hillary Clinton was as a candidate in this country, she still beat Donald Trump in the New York popular vote by 1.7 million votes. As you can see above, even if we break it down by Senate district (which is important, since we’ll be selecting Constitutional Convention delegates this way) 40 out of our 63 Senate districts voted for Clinton in 2016. So in a general sense, 64% of our 204 delegates are likely to be people who voted “blue”. Digging even deeper, you’ll note that in the 2016 Democratic primary between the progressive Bernie Sanders and the more mainstream Hillary Clinton, Sanders pretty much swept the entire state outside of the greater New York City metropolitan area.
This is a very important fact most people haven’t bothered to note, because Sanders’ blatantly “socialist” platform was, ironically, embraced more in those rural red-state areas than in hipster-laden Brooklyn. Facebook may give the sense of a gigantic cultural divide in this country, but in New York State, at least, it’s not so cut and dry. Urbanites and rural folk both are tired of the business-as-usual approach our government has been taking for decades. On issues ranging from Single-Payer Health Care to Legalizing Marijuana to the obvious ballooning gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99%, the majority of us want the same thing: to live in a place where we can raise our families without worrying about our jobs, our health, our schools, our homes. We want to live free from worry about not having our basic needs met, because for more and more people, regardless of where they live, these needs aren’t being met. There is no doubt that a convention, like ANY gathering of human beings, will result in disagreement, debate, and compromise. But the liberal fear that it will be somehow dominated by the kind of extremists that want to dismantle pensions and our social safety net, however… well, there’s just not any evidence to back it up. In fact, Gun Rights and other right-wing advocacy groups are afraid of the opposite being true- that progressives will dominate the convention- and are putting money into shill groups like New Yorkers Against Corruption that pretend to be public advocates but suspiciously fail to mention who is running that group. Check out their FAQ and notice there isn’t a single piece of evidence provided to back up their fear-mongering claims.
If the Koch Brothers (or whomever their local equivalent is) are lurking in the shadows ready to pour millions of dollars into sabotaging this convention, they had better start advertising soon, because they’re running out of time. November 7th is a few weeks away, and there’s virtually no news coverage or public discussion of this issue. In fact, the few ads I have seen all come from “Vote No” groups (like New Yorkers Against Corruption) who, curiously, are working with the same right-wing ad agency that worked with Mike Pence, Rick Santorum, and produced these incredibly bizarre and elaborate anti-Hillary and pro-Trump ads. Check out their portfolio; Albany-based Brabender Cox has a clear political agenda of extreme conservatism and they’re the ones urging us to beware of a right-wing takeover. J.H. Snider’s comprehensive study of Constitutional Conventions reveals that this is no coincidence- it’s actually the opponents of Constitutional Conventions who have the deepest pockets, not the supporters- a fact that blatantly contradicts the “Koch Brother Takeover” theory the “Vote No” camp constantly uses.
In the weeks since that Town Hall meeting, I have reached out to the office of Senator Montgomery, and directly asked Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon and other “Vote No” leaders hoping for names or statistics that back up their concerns. I’ve asked them who these rich right-wingers are, lurking in the shadows to take over the Democratic process in New York. So far, I’ve yet to receive a single name or piece of evidence from any of them. If anyone has the upper hand in this debate, it’s the “Vote No” camp, and not these mythical rich saboteurs.
Protecting the Poor, Protecting our Forests
The two examples most often invoked when arguing against a Constitutional Convention are Articles XIV and XVII, both of which are wonderful provisions not found in the Federal constitution. Article XVII is, by far, the one most often cited as needing protection from the convention process, which holds the state responsible for providing care to anyone that needs it:
“The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions, and in such manner and by such means, as the Legislature may from time to time determine.”
NYU School of Law professor Helen Hershkoff brings up some great legal battles that were won for the under-served because of this unique law. 1977’s Tucker vs Toia is a case in point: a 1976 State Law came into being that denied financial assistance to New Yorkers under the age of 21 unless they could provide a costly “Disposition Against a Responsible Family Member”, which basically left children who needed assistance in the lurch. The Court of Appeals struck it down using Article XVII, claiming the law was illegally discriminating based on age. In 2004, Aliessa vs Novella used the Tucker Principle to strike down a late-1990’s law that barred legal and illegal immigrants from receiving Medicaid in New York. Article XVII solidifies our compassion and values as NY State citizens into law- so allowing the possibility of gutting it via a convention would put the needy in jeopardy, argues Hershkoff. She cites the 1967 convention as evidence: some delegates tried watering-down part of Article XVII’s language, which would have made it easier for judges to deny people assistance. It didn’t pass, but what if delegates try this again- and succeed?
So here’s the counter-argument: first of all, while it’s true that the 1967 convention tried to change Article XVII’s language, the proposed change was voted down by NY voters. In fact, every time attempts at watering-down the constitution have occurred in conventions, NY State voters have voted against ratifying those proposed changes. In other words, the constitutional convention system works as intended, and the public isn’t as easily-duped as legislators paint. Yes, the risk is there, but risk is always there, in every situation throughout the different political climates we’ve weathered over the last 200+ years. A bunch of businessmen declaring independence from England was risky, too- a lot more risky than this vote- and yet, here we are, living in the US of A because of their wisdom. The public will always have the final vote, and they have always come through in protecting the constitution.
Furthermore- and this is a really important point: Article XVII itself only exists because of a constitutional convention- the one that took place in 1937, as a matter of fact. To take that a step further: all of the great constitutional provisions the “Vote No” camp wants to protect were born during constitutional conventions, and not during the normal legislative process that goes on in Albany. The other much-lauded article- Article XIV- is a perfect example. A group of forward-thinking citizens lobbied for this environmental law to be drafted at the convention, and In 1894 voters approved the provision, which sets aside large chunks of wetlands and forest preserve in what is known as the “Forever Wild” clause:
“The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
NYC’s clean drinking water is due to this law, as are the vast acres of forests and mountains we can enjoy today without fear of having them sold to the fracking industry. At the time, no one had ever thought of protecting our land in this way, and this innovative law set a precedent the rest of the country soon followed. Teddy Roosevelt’s famous wildlife preservation laws came a few years later, emboldened by our Article XIV. The irony of having the “Vote No” camp rest their arguments on these examples couldn’t be greater: without constitutional conventions, none of these valuable legal provisions would even exist. It’s only because of Thomas Jefferson’s foresight and the efforts of passionate citizens over the ages that we’ve been able to make huge improvements to our state law. By contrast, though the NY State Legislature has amended the constitution over 200 times, none of those amendments have ever been about fundamental structural reforms. Albany, in fact, has never shown any interest in fundamentally updating or rewriting the constitution. Out of the four times in history that our constitution has undergone major rewrites, they have all occurred during Constitutional Conventions. If we’re going to wait for Albany to fix things, we might as well wait for Godot.
So what is there to fix? There is a comprehensive list at the end of this piece, but Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who successfully killed the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 with the landmark Supreme Court case United States vs Windsor provides some perspective on why a convention is so essential. Because Article XVII doesn’t explicitly mention gay and transgender people, Kaplan lost a 2006 case in which the NY State Court of Appeals ruled that Article XVII’s provisions did not extend to gay people getting married. If we truly want our world to improve, Kaplan points out, far from voting “No” in order to protect the Constitution, we need to vote “Yes” so that we can rewrite it to truly work for everyone. Senior Counsel Evan Davis also supports the Convention as the only method we have for fixing issues our legislature refuses to address. His example: there is a wide discrepancy in teacher salaries around New York City. While the median salary is $75K, the more affluent suburbs of Westchester County average $110K, all the way upwards of $140K. The result? All the good teachers flock to the rich suburbs, and low-income students get a sub-par education. The NY Citizens Budget Commission reports that our state sends more financial aid to richer school districts and less to the poor ones- a ridiculously counter-intuitive practice, since the poorer sections of our city are the ones in most need of assistance.
The “Vote No” camp’s counter-argument to these examples is: we already have a legislative process to amend the law- we should focus on that. For a constitutional amendment to pass in Albany, however, it has to be approved by both the Senate and House twice, in two consecutive, separately-elected terms, without a single change or revision. If it manages that amazing feat, it then goes to the voters as a referendum ballot question. If over half of New York State approves it, only then does it become law. Kaplan’s wish to guarantee explicit rights of protection to minorities and LGBT folks? They actually tried passing that one in Albany, but the Senate blocked it. In fact, the Senate has blocked many great proposals, including: necessary improvements to women’s reproductive health, Universal Health Care, improving Immigration policies, Criminal Justice Reform, and Voting Reform bills. This is why the Education Clause in our constitution hasn’t changed since 1894, and why poor neighborhoods remain underfunded. If you truly believe teachers should be paid better and that a solid public education should be accessible to everyone, you’ll have to accept the fact that we can only achieve this via a Constitutional Convention.
“Products of Their Time”
The argument used by the “ Vote No” camp when responding to the fact that all of our great laws came about exclusively in Constitutional Conventions is to say “those times were different than they are now.” For example, Article XVII was written during the depression, when FDR’s New Deal policy was sweeping the nation and people were in a socialist frame of mind. This is true, but it’s an ironic argument to make in 2017. Love him or hate him, Trump won in a large part because he was perceived by many as being a maverick populist hero and not politics-as-usual. Bernie Sanders, without any media attention or Super PACS to fund him broke records with the highest number of individual donors in American History- so it’s a little difficult to believe that we’re not living in “one of those moments in time” where Americans are clamoring for big changes.
Compared to an astounding 93% voter participation in the 1950’s, New Yorkers have steadily become disillusioned in our political process: 1993’s Giuliani vs Dinkins mayoral race was at 52%, 2016’s landmark election race of Trump vs Clinton brought in a measly 22% of eligible voters, and just a few weeks ago, a miserable 15% of New York City bothered to vote in the mayoral primaries. Yet speak to any person about the state of things in New York and they’ll tell you exactly what they think is wrong with our system- so why don’t all these passionate voices translate into passionate voters? To start with, our so-called leaders in Albany are a moral and ethical failure. An astounding 30 New York legislators have been fired since 2000, and over half of those firings occurred in the last 6 years. Second, our own State makes it as difficult for you to vote as possible with convoluted absentee ballot rules, a lack of same-day registration, no real mechanism for early-voting, and closed primaries. So why bother voting when it’s a pain in the ass and there’s a good chance the person you vote for will turn out to be a crook?
If we really care about voter participation… if we truly believe that “every vote counts” and that it’s important to go vote… we can’t simultaneously suppress the one example of participatory Democracy we have that would invigorate our apathetic populace. When New York voters had Barack Obama to get excited about in 2008, turnout jumped to 59% at the ballot box before dipping down again in subsequent elections; people aren’t apathetic, just disillusioned. You simply can’t blame them for feeling like their vote doesn’t matter when it so often doesn’t matter, and a Constitutional Convention is a once-in-a-generation chance for folks to rejoin the political process in a direct way they will never get to experience again.
The Delegate Issue
Before you cast your vote, however, you need to be clear on how, exactly, these 204 delegates are chosen (3 per senate district plus 15 “At Large” delegates from anywhere in the state.) The Sanctuary State Project’s Art Chang broke it down for me this way: to be a delegate, you first need to live in the district that you’re running for. To get on the ballot under the party that you are currently registered with, you need 1,000 valid signatures from voters from the same party that live in your district who haven’t already endorsed another potential delegate. If you want to switch parties, or form your own party, you need 3,000 signatures from any registered voter in your district. Politics being the dirty game that it is, Democrats and Republicans have a financial advantage over the rest; they can lump their three choices into one single advertising campaign, and they can mount challenges to competing delegates’ petitions, hoping to disqualify signatures based on technicalities, since they have resources to do so that independent candidates may lack. Of course, the internet has leveled the playing field somewhat through social media and crowdsourcing; as Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid proved, you can accomplish a lot even without any party support or media attention- but the two major parties still hold most of the cards.
Once we elect our delegates (in November of 2018), they will determine the rules of the convention- so it behooves us, as voters, to demand clear and transparent platform positions from them as a condition of receiving our vote. Here’s an example: once the delegates have finished drafting their constitutional changes, they can choose to let us vote on their proposals one by one, or as a single-package deal. The “package deal” approach is dangerous, since terrible laws can be bundled with attractive ones, and our only choice is to either reject or accept the entire thing. That’s exactly what happened 50 years ago, so it’s up to us as voters to be well aware of whom we are supporting beforehand. Thankfully, we now have online tools to make tracking and discussing legislation easier- but we need to use them.
Delegates are paid around $80,000 for their service. The session begins on April 2, 2019 (there is no time limit to the convention, but usually, they finish in time to submit their proposals for a vote that November.) Anyone, including legislators, can become a delegate- which means legislators can receive the $80k on top of their usual salary, a process called “double-dipping”. This is obviously far from ideal, but Albany has yet to change that rule (no surprise there) so we’re stuck with it for the moment. Of course, we don’t have to elect any legislators as delegates, and, in fact, research shows voters rarely elect more than 10% of legislators as delegates. New York had less than 5% of them at the last one in 1967. However, the difficulty in finding and electing the right combination of skilled delegates is, to me, the biggest weakness in the Constitutional Convention process. It isn’t so much that evil Koch Brother types will destroy the constitution, but that the convention could suffer the same fate as our everyday legislation in Albany: gridlock and inertia with little to show for it in the end.
Jerry Kremer, a political analyst who regularly appears on Fox News, offers his own experience at the 1967 convention as evidence for this issue during a recent NY Bar Association panel discussion. Even though there were few legislators among the delegates, there were 60–70 elected officials in the ranks. As a result, the “average citizen” delegates with little experience often deferred to the more experienced legislators’ opinions, and everyone deferred to the Speaker of the Assembly, who dominated the entire discussion and set the agenda for all to follow. This experience very much soured Kremer on the nitty-gritty politics that actually dominate the conventions. He doesn’t see enough public outcry against Albany that would translate into delegates standing up to legislative bullies running the convention, so he’s against having one. It’s tough to agree with that belief, however, when you trace the growth of activism among the public- from the Seattle WTO protests in 1999 to the anti-Iraq-war marches in 2003 to Occupy Wall Street to this year’s post-Trump women’s march, the number of people now actively concerned with the direction of this country is as large as it’s ever been in my lifetime. In fact, the New York City Bar’s own Task Force on the Constitutional Convention came to the same conclusion:
“Twenty years later, there is significantly more momentum for reform than there was in 1997, and there appears to be broader agreement that reforms are particularly needed in the areas of suffrage, government ethics, and the judiciary.”
So… Is it Worth It?
Like so many things in life, your decision to vote for or against a Constitutional Convention will depend less on facts and more on your general point of view. If you tend to be cautious and protective and value security more than anything, all the math and facts in the world will probably not be enough to convince you to support a convention. If you’re cynical about human nature and have lost all faith in our ability to accomplish anything, you probably aren’t going to get excited about the great possibilities achievable at a convention. “There’s no reason to think a progressive spirit would prevail,” declares Helen Hershkoff, but that’s clearly a subjective view; many people, including myself, see plenty of evidence of a huge progressive movement taking place today. As you can probably guess, after going through all the evidence, I am very much of the opinion that a convention is not just a good thing but an essential thing- and if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity now, fuggetaboutit. We’ve blown our one chance to really make a difference politically.
To truly judge whether the convention is worth it, however, you need to weigh the potential dangers against the potential benefits, which we haven’t discussed in full detail. So before you make a decision, read through this list of what we could gain by a convention:
• Voting — as discussed, our legislature makes it difficult for you to vote- which is absolutely UN-democratic. The constitution states you must register 10 days before an election, yet our own legislators only accept a written, paper request that must be sitting on their desk at least 25 days before voting day or they can claim you null and void. We need to re-write the laws to accept same-day voter registration, permit “no excuse” absentee voting, have an early-voting system in place, allow ex-felons to vote, have open primaries regardless of party affiliation, and, hell, make voting day an actual holiday. If we really want to be Democratic, we should also institute Ranked Choice Voting (aka Instant Runoff Voting) which allows you to rate your candidates in order of preference. Remember the whole Ralph Nader “spoiler” issue in the 2000 election? RCV / IRV would have eliminated that issue entirely, allowing you to vote your conscience without worrying about splitting the vote. Maine adopted that system in 2016, and there’s absolutely no reason New York shouldn’t follow suit.
Public Referendums — I was lucky enough to visit Berlin for the first time in my life recently, and was blown away by how many amazing aspects of the city, including public gardens and affordable housing, have successfully withstood the onslaught of developers and other big-moneyed interests. While New Yorkers watch everything they love about the city slowly disappear, Berliners have no problem banding together and preserving everything they hold dear- how? Via their public referendums, which anyone in Berlin can bring into existence with enough signatures. Quite simply, if enough people care about an issue, they can force a vote and let the people decide for themselves. Why is this not a thing in America, birthplace of Democracy? The New York Senate actually passed a provision like this in 2011, but it died before reaching the 2016 ballot- yet another example of the black hole that is our Albany legislature. Remember, for a measure to become law, it must be approved by two consecutive, separately-elected legislatures, and then approved by a majority of voters via a ballot- good luck ever getting anything meaningful passed that way. Or, we could try the Constitutional Convention method. If I could pick one thing I’d like to see materialize at this convention, it would be this issue; just like using your one genie-granted wish to wish for a million wishes, creating a structure for public referendums would allow us to fix all our problems one by one, regardless of what our state legislature does. No wonder Albany’s ruling elite are so adamantly opposed to Constitutional Conventions.
• Court Reform — Let’s say you’re a victim of domestic abuse, and you’re trying to get a restraining order and divorce from your spouse. Under our current system, you would need to appear in least 3 different courts before justice could be served- and even more if the case is more complicated (i.e. getting them to pay alimony, or an estate battle due to a death.) Why? Because there are 11 different trial courts, and you can’t shift judges from one to court to another as needed, thanks to Article VI (the judiciary section of our constitution, adopted in 1894) which takes up a whopping ⅓ of the whole constitution. It’s a mess, as any NY lawyer will attest to, and it’s remained the same mess for over a century. Litigator Michael Cardozo points out another example: NY State is divided into four appellate divisions, yet half of our current population resides in ONE of these four divisions, which has a caseload larger than the other three combined. What made sense geographically in 1894 makes no sense today, yet the constitution’s wording makes it impossible to create a new department, and Albany politicians have failed to agree on how to redraw the district boundaries since that law was written. If you’re looking for an example of how dysfunctional our government bureaucracy can be, this is it- and it will remain that way for another hundred years unless we change it via a constitutional convention. Even if this were the only change we managed to achieve with the convention, it alone would save New York State half-a-billion dollars a year- no joke- which is why the NY State Bar has come out in favor of a Constitutional Convention.
• Universal / Single-Payer Health Care — here’s an issue the majority of us agree on- affordable health care for everyone. The New York Health Act is an attempt at this, but it’s stuck in legislative limbo- and while support for the act has slowly increased over time, it could still be ages before it makes it through the Albany labyrinth. While Republicans continue to chip away at the ACA on the Federal level, a Constitutional Convention is our one chance to bypass the broken system and make the dream of free healthcare for all a reality.
• Saving our Environment — Getting worried about what our world will look like in 20, 30 years? Yeah, me too- and yet Albany continues to waffle at creating any useful set of laws that will help us battle the environmental issues we are all going to face. The biggest argument here is time- we don’t have any left, yet Albany continues to act as if this isn’t a ticking time bomb. A Constitutional Convention would cut through all the red tape and deliver the strong set of laws we need to curtail our wasteful carbon footprint. We were the first state in the nation to make protecting our environment a law, and we can be at the forefront of this great issue yet again… if we want to.
• Election Reform — this includes issues like redistricting to remove gerrymandering, changing our Board of Electors from a 2-party duopoly of 4 members to a nonpartisan 5-member board, and adding significant limits to campaign contributions (especially corporate ones) to reduce the amount of outside money in politics as a countermeasure to the Supreme Court’s abysmal Citizen United ruling. If our Federal Government isn’t interested in fixing these problems, we can at least fix them on a local level.
• Construction Projects — here’s one example out of a hundred that we never think about. Say New York City needs a major overhaul of the BQE expressway (which is actually the case.) The standard way of doing this involves soliciting bids from separate designers and construction companies, a process that takes a long time. So long, in fact, that by the time everything has been approved, many of the budget items have become outdated- costs of raw materials have gone up from what was quoted, for example. The result is a ridiculous waste of time and money with projects that take ten times a long to complete, and end up with huge cost overruns- for no other reason that the system itself forces inefficiency. But there’s another way, known as “Design-Build,” that allows governments to bundle the design and construction phases into a single deal, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. Why this isn’t standard operating procedure boggles the mind, but it isn’t- and, despite NYC begging Albany to allow them to employ this process, the legislature refuses to budge (most likely because our legislators are deep in the pockets of developers who make a fortune off of our inefficient system.) Changes in our constitution via a convention would force Albany’s hand and save taxpayers billions of dollars in the long run (the BQE project alone would save $158 million using Design-Build.)
• Strengthening Existing Laws — as mentioned earlier, voting “no” to preserve the good laws in our constitution misses the fact that there are some much-needed improvements to be made with those laws, from making the language more explicit about helping and defending immigrants, LGBT and other minority groups, to strengthening the language in education laws, to making public schools what they’re supposed to be: free, quality education for everyone, regardless of where you live or how poor you are. The New York City Bar Task Force has a detailed report on these and other necessary upgrades to our current laws which is definitely worth reading.
• Criminal Justice Reform — this includes much-needed changes in police accountability & transparency, decriminalizing marijuana (or making it fully legal) and allowing convicted felons to vote (as mentioned previously.)
But wait- there’s more… check out other suggestions at The Sanctuary State Project, at the SUNY Rockefeller Institute, and this incredibly helpful resourceat Citizens Union. Compare the potential pitfalls of a convention to the potential benefits, and cast your vote. For me, the facts are more than clear: this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to finally see my government work the way I was told it does by countless textbooks and teachers throughout my life. It’s a chance to lift voters out of their cynical stupor, and to give them a legitimate reason to care about politics; for once in their lives, they can actually make a tangible, measurable difference. If your best argument is “the delegates will never agree on anything- so why bother?” The answer is “because we have no realistic alternate path to improving things, and history shows how much we’ve accomplished with conventions in the past.”
No one knows what we’ll manage to accomplish if a Constitutional Convention is called- perhaps nothing, perhaps everything- but we already know what will happen if we don’t vote for a Convention: another 20 years of Albany corruption, voter apathy, clogged courts, handicapped laws and volumes of bitching and moaning by a populace convinced the game is rigged. It is rigged, but only because we let it. For once, we have a chance do something about that.
 In regards to why so many groups, including Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club and Food & Water Watch all oppose the convention, political scientist J.H. Snider explains (starting on p.281) that most of these groups receive funding from large labor unions who don’t want a convention. Supporting a convention would put their funding in jeopardy. “Why would you put your money with someone who wants to destroy you?” asks Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Campaign finance laws make it impossible to know who is spending what before the election, but when it’s revealed afterwards, it becomes clear that the groups most opposed to a convention have a financial interest in keeping us away from having one.
My deepest appreciation to everyone who took the time to speak with me on this issue!