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Supporters Want NY Constitutional Convention Question On Front Of Ballots

A "vote here" sign in English and Spanish on sidewalk
Paul Tuthill

Supporters of a constitutional convention in New York say the amendment deserves prominent placement on the November ballot. Opponents say the entire idea is too risky, and that the state should skip it.

Every twenty years, New Yorkers have the chance to vote on whether or not the state should hold a constitutional convention. If it’s approved, delegates are elected from each state Senate district, and meet to decide on potential changes to the state’s constitution.

A coalition that backs holding a convention says it could lose potential "yes" votes, if the ballot proposal is not displayed on the front on the ballot when it next appears on November 7. The state Board of Elections has not yet made a decision, but in the past, proposed amendments have appeared on the back of the state’s paper ballots.

Evan Davis, former president of the New York City Bar Association, is heading the Committee for the Constitutional Convention. The group also includes former Lieutenant Governor Stan Lundine, and former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann.

“It’s so easy to forget to turn over the ballot,” said Davis, who said voters can be in a hurry and pressured by long lines behind them.

Davis says opponents could also benefit from having the proposal in a prominent place on the ballot.  He says the last time the convention was proposed in 1997, more people left the space blank than voted either for or against the question. That convention was ultimately rejected.

Davis, an attorney in private practice, served as counsel to former Governor Mario Cuomo, the late father of Governor Andrew Cuomo. The current governor has said in past State of the State messages that he’s for a constitutional convention, but has not talked about the issue.

Davis’s committee is seeking donations and plans to spend the money to promote the constitutional convention. He says it’s essential if meaningful change is ever going to happen in state government.

“So many things that need to be done to fix Albany, to restore democracy, to resist corruption,” said Davis. “That the legislature is never going to do.”

Davis says a constitutional convention could enact early voting and same day registration, to make it easier to vote, and outlaw the gerrymandering of legislative districts.  And he says the wave of corruption at the Capitol could also be addressed, by perhaps creating a panel similar to the Commission on Judicial Conduct for the legislature and the governor’s office. He says a convention could even remedy the stipend scandal currently plaguing the legislature, where some Senators were paid for chairing committees that they in fact did not chair.

Other supporters, including the League of Women Voters and Citizens Union, say new rights could be added to the state’s constitution, including the right to clean water and clean air, and equal rights for women, LGBTQ people and disabled New Yorkers.

Opponents of a constitutional convention, including several public employee unions worry that instead of gaining reforms, the wide open nature of the convention could result in the loss of some existing rights now in the state’s constitution. They include the right to a public education for all, the right to welfare benefits for destitute New Yorkers, as well as the right to form a union and receive pension benefits.

Leaders of the state legislature are also opposed. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan says he prefers a more incremental method for amending the state’s constitution that’s been used successfully in recent years.  After two consecutively elected legislatures approve a proposed amendment, voters weigh in the following November.

“We have a mechanism, in my opinion, already in place,” said Flanagan. “And I’m comfortable with the way that works.”

This year, voters will decide whether to amend the state’s constitution to ban elected officials convicted of a felony from collecting a state pension.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie warns that special interests could hijack the convention by trying to sway public opinion through an expensive campaign.

“We should be very, very careful in exposing the constitution to the whims of someone from outside the state who could decide to spend millions of dollars to put forth a position,” Heastie said.

A recent poll by Siena College finds there is interest among New Yorkers in the idea of a constitutional convention, although most admit they don’t really know much about it.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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