On November 7, 2017, we will have an opportunity to vote on a ballot amendment, that if approved, will result in the establishment of a convention to consider revisions to our state constitution. Henry Greenberg who chairs the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on the New York State Constitution, considers the initiative a rare (once in every 20 years opportunity) for “direct democracy.”
His presentation, and the panel discussion that followed, raised any number of serious concerns. Many aspects of our current constitution are outdated, some to quote Greenberg “read more like a poorly drafted municipal code than the supreme law of New York State,” and some overly protect the interest of a few at the expense of the many. Doing so however, is complicated.
The New York State Constitution can be amended through legislatively referred constitutional amendments or through constitutional conventions as mentioned by Mr. Greenberg.
Don’t hold your breath if you are looking for dramatic things to happen under either approach. Voters turned down opportunities to use the “referendum” path in 1957, 1977 and 1997. One convention was held in 1967 to deal with a Federal Court ruling, the results of which were put to rest by voters in 1967. The results of the “legislative” path is equally dismal, with many of our elected officials unlikely to rain on their own parade. Between 1996 and 2012, an average of only one measure appeared on ballots for voter consideration, many of which were narrowly focused.
A secondary issue also surfaces. Sad but true, our constitution is a document that most of the members of the public know anything about. Supporters of change tend to focus on single issues, while dissenters’ are convinced the establishment of a convention will open up Pandora’s Box with deleterious results. The loss of earned entitlements jumps to the top of the list.
Can we afford to be indifferent? No! If the referendum is approved elections will take place in 63 Senate Districts, three delegates per district and fifteen at large. The convention would convene on April 2nd of 2019 requiring our approval that November. Any changes become law the first of 2020. Under the Supreme Court Citizens’ United decision, there can be no limit on the funding of elections. Anyone who is eligible to vote can run to be a delegate.
If history be the guide, we are in for a long and torturous ride down a rather bumpy road. Let the games begin, I’ll do my best to keep you informed.