New York State requires voters to determine if a constitutional convention should take place for the state every 20 years. The last vote for the “con con” was in 2017, and it was an idea that was soundly rejected.
The constitutional convention is an open-ended process allowing elected delegates to amend the governing documents of the state. It is an idea that allows the people to update how they want their government to provide services, but there is also a significant risk that protections for civil liberties and civil rights could be eroded.
As the New York Civil Liberties Union describes the constitutional convention, it is a “process that’s rigged to favor the interests of the power.”
There are several pros and cons of the New York constitutional convention to evaluate when looking at this unique process.
List of the Pros of the New York Constitutional Convention
1. The state constitution is almost 100 years old in its current formation.
The constitutional convention that currently governs New York State was initially written in 1894. It was amended significantly in 1938, and that was the last time that the document received a refresh. It isn’t a lean document like the U.S. Constitution, which means it requires some attention every so often since it’s over 52,000 words in length. When the initial writers created it, the goal was to rewrite, redress, and amend it for each generation. Holding a vote every 20 years makes this outcome a possibility.
2. The last constitutional convention in New York was 1967.
Voters have twice rejected the idea of having a constitutional convention since the last one was held in the 1960s. Even then, the proposed changes that were made to the governing document were rejected. The fact is that 1938 was a different time in the United States. As the world was moving towards war and the Great Depression seemed like it would never end, people at the time wanted to protect themselves. Having this possibility in place allows for others to do the same.
3. It would give the state a chance to improve its court system.
The court system in New York State is one of the most inefficient designs operating in the modern world. There are 11 different trial courts currently active, which comes at a cost of up to $600 million each year. The American Bar Association and the state version of it have tried repetitively without success to get the legislature to make changes to this system.
Because of this system, people sometimes need to go to three different courts to get their matters fully resolved. There is a criminal court for any pending charges, a family court for custody issues or an order of protection, and the Supreme Court manages divorces.
4. The constitutional convention would allow legislative funding to continue.
When changes are proposed, then there will always be fears that something might not come out in one person’s or group’s favor. That emotional reaction is what gets people involved in the legislative process in the first place. The idea of having a convention is that it would guarantee that there would be enough money in place for the government to evolve how it can support the general population.
The idea of fearmongering is laughable to proponents of the idea. Christopher Bopst, the Chief Legal Officer for Sam-Son Logistics in Buffalo, pointed out in 2017 that New York State has a reputation for supporting liberal causes. “You have a very progressive state that voted for Hillary Clinton by 22.5 points over Donald Trump,” he said. “We are not going to turn into Mississippi or Kansas and start taking away things that most New Yorkers support.”
5. The constitutional convention would create more conversations.
You will hear a lot of talk throughout New York from officials and residents about how broken the government is on any given today. The only problem is that no one wants to do anything about the problem. Holding a constitutional convention elevates the level of political conversation, forcing people to start thinking about the big picture and how it could be changed to make needed improvements.
It could be a way to help the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to eliminate their dysfunction. The convention could look for ways to stop taxing powers from being misaligned. Even if the proposals aren’t approved by voters, there could be enough momentum to finally fix what gets broken.
6. Voters are under no obligation to accept the convention’s proposals.
One of the primary arguments against the idea of a constitutional convention in New York State is that the entire process could go off of the rails. There’s no denying that this possibility does exist. The difference is that the delegates elected to work on the governing documents must still report to the people. No one is given carte blanche to rewrite the constitution without checks and balances in place.
7. It allows people to override the government.
The reason for the 20-year question for voters is that the constitutional convention allows the people to address concerns with the government if their elected officials will not do so. With the amount of spending directed to advertising and lobbying, over $2 million was spent to convince people to either vote for or against the measure. Allowing people to have a say over what is and isn’t possible gives them a voice that the government cannot deny. It’s like having the opportunity to hold another election when you feel like the current status quo isn’t good enough for your needs.
List of the Cons of the New York Constitutional Convention
1. It is an at-large election.
The structure of the New York constitutional convention is an at-large election that chooses the delegates for the process. It impacts the influence of minority voters on the ability to change the governing documents. The diversity of the state is one of its greatest strengths, but experts believe that the formal electoral process to choose participants would only favor the majority.
Since there wouldn’t be the same representation of the minority in the process, it would be easier for the majority to start changing protections for specific groups.
2. There is a cost element to consider with this process.
New York State already struggles to fully fund its school districts. A lack of money in the healthcare industry makes it challenging for at-risk people to receive the care they require. The cost of holding a constitutional convention in the state takes cash away from the services that the population requires. There would be a real threat that this meeting could make things worse instead of better because the presence of special interests would not be well controlled in those circumstances.
It would be up to each delegate to pursue what they feel is in the best interest of the state, and the pessimist would say that anyone could be bought for the right price.
3. Most people in New York are against the idea of a constitutional convention.
When the initial polling for the constitutional convention in New York came out, about 56% of the state’s population was against the idea. When the vote finally took place, it went down by roughly a 70 to 30 margin. One of the issues was that 10% of the ballots were blank regarding this issue because voters didn’t turn over their ballot to see that there were three proposition questions listed.
Holding a constitutional convention against the will of the people is never a good idea to consider. At least New York allows voters to determine if they should be holding one for each generation.
4. It could adversely impact the union culture of New York State.
When the 2017 ballot came out to decide if a constitutional convention should be authorized, an opposition group called New Yorkers Against Corruption formed. It was a bipartisan group that included organizations like the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association and Planned Parenthood. The fear was that holding this meeting to update the governing documents of the state would open the door for out-of-state interests to have some influence.
One of the primary concerns of members was a possible attack on public pensions. The union environment in the state is already experiencing pushback from its structure, which includes police, firefighters, correctional officers, and more. By having all of these groups come together, their goal was to show that people can work with one another to support the overall good.
5. It takes two years to vote on the final changes of the convention.
The timing of the constitutional convention in New York is somewhat problematic. It is a two-year process of updating the document that finally ends with voter approval or denial. That’s a long time for changes to take place, and it also means that there could be updates that happen which immediately become dated. Then the changes must go through an adaptation period so that everyone gets used to the new governing experience. By the time everything gets sorted out so that it becomes usable, the vote to hold another constitutional convention would come around again.
6. State lawmakers could change the constitution at any time.
Elected officials don’t need the guise of a constitutional convention to make changes to the governing documents of the state. Lawmakers can make the changes by themselves as a group, although there is a high bar to clear to make that happen. The legislature must pass an amendment to the constitution twice, and there must be an election held between those two bills before it can pass. Then the matter goes to the public in a referendum so that they can decide if the alterations are beneficial.
7. The constitutional convention could choose to address specific issues only.
The reason why there were so many coalitions in place for this 2017 ballot measure was that there were fears that specific protections could go away. Gun owner-rights groups felt that delegates might try to sneak in more restrictions on firearms sales and use. Environmental groups thought that people might try to eliminate the protections that prevent large-scale development from happening in the Catskills and Adirondacks.
Teachers were against the measure because the constitution guarantees collective bargaining rights for public workers and they didn’t want them to disappear.
8. Elected officials could become delegates to the convention.
Governor Cuomo was initially supportive of the idea of a constitutional convention, but he was concerned about how the process would get structured. It would allow the current lawmakers of the state to become elected delegates. If you’re having a convention to rewrite the constitution and it involves the people who are already part of the problem instead of the solution, then it defeats the purpose of having it in the first place.
In 1967, only 7% of the delegates for the constitutional convention then were sitting lawmakers. The League of Women Voters notes that about half of the delegates for that effort were in some type of political office or appointment.
The constitutional convention in New York State could help to fix many of the problems that exist under the current governing structure. With over 52,000 words of legal requirements to follow, the document outlines many of the duties and expectations that residents and officials can expect.
It also allows for meaningful action to take place for a government that triggers widespread dissatisfaction from Albany to New York City.
When one looks at the pros and cons of the New York constitutional convention, the one issue that really stands out is the lack of predictability. No one knows what the delegates might decide to do, which means everyone has something positive that could be at risk of disappearing. That’s why many people felt like the negatives outweighed the potential benefits, so they chose to vote down the measure.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.