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Election Day Preview: Will New Yorkers Vote For A Constitutional Convention?

Voter Stickers
Darron Cummings

Next week on Election Day, New Yorkers will decide whether or not to hold a constitutional convention. If they say yes, it will be the first one in about 80 years and would open up the state's constitution to revision.

This prospect has a broad range of advocacy groups worried that hard-won rights might be in jeopardy. Others say it would afford an opportunity to reform government.

Reporter Karen DeWitt has been following the story and she recently spoke with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser to fill him in on what she’s learned.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Good morning, Karen.

Hi, Tom.

The path to a constitutional convention, we know, is a long and drawn out process. What was the reason behind calling for one now?

Well, mostly because they had to. Every 20 years it has to be on the ballot. New Yorkers are offered the opportunity whether to have one or not. You mentioned that there hasn’t been one in 80 years; that’s actually not quite accurate. The last successful one was 80 years ago in the 1930s, where they made major revisions to the constitution.

They actually did hold one back in 1967, but voters ultimately rejected everything that the convention suggested be done. So it’s been a while, and it has led some people to wonder, “Is this an outdated form of doing things?” Because the last time it was up on the ballot, it was 1997, voters rejected it.

Now I understand there is a coalition of groups that have organized to stop the convention this time around. Which groups are in the coalition and what do they fear would happen if there is a convention?

It’s a huge coalition, and it really illustrates the old cliche that politics makes strange bedfellows because you have the New York Civil Liberties Union, some reform groups, some environmental groups, and then you have the Conservative party, gun rights groups, they’re all together on this, saying that they don’t want a constitutional convention. And it’s mostly because they’re afraid of losing rights that are already in the convention.

They’re saying there’s too much chaos in the world and in the nation right now, let’s not mess with a good thing. But really, the unions in New York State are really behind the no vote push, and they're urging their members to come out and vote against the constitutional convention ballot question. And you know, that could sway things.

And how about money, has a lot been spent by this coalition so far?

Not a lot compared to like a regular election, but it’s well over $1 million compared to just $250,000 for those who support the convention. And I should say some government reform groups do support it, like Citizens Union, but they definitely are losing right now, frankly, in the rhetorical war about this.

What parts of the state constitution do they want to change?

They do have a good argument, and New York is experiencing a wave of corruption. Our two former legislative leaders were both convicted on felony corruption charges although both have been overturned on appeal, but they will likely both be facing retrial. Nine of Governor Cuomo’s associates go to trial on various corruption charges: bribery, bid-rigging, they’re going to trial in 2018 and they’re saying this is a chance to reform all of these rules and regulations that leave New York open to corruption. So, you know, they’re very optimistic that New Yorkers would take over this convention and that they’d be able to reform all of these things.

How would you compare the run up to this particular year’s vote regarding the convention, compared to efforts in the past?

You know, there’s just a lot of distraction right now, I think between social media, and Twitter and Facebook, and lots of things happening, it doesn’t seem like voters are really tuning in to it right now. There’s also I should mention some misinformation going on on Facebook saying, “If you don’t vote on this proposition it counts as a yes,” which is absolutely not true. If you don’t vote on the proposition when you go to the ballot, you don’t vote on it, it doesn’t count for anything.

Any idea where that misinformation came from?

Well, I’ve been trying to track it down, and it’s kind of hard to track down, frankly, to track down fake news on Facebook. That is actually been something I’ve been in the process of, as a little challenge to myself.

Karen, I understand there were two other propositions on the ballot for the 7th as well.

That’s right. Opening up the entire state constitution for review is one way to change the state’s constitution, but there’s another way in New York State, and that’s by individual amendment. And two of those are on the ballot this year.

One is, should elected officials who are convicted of felonies have their pensions revoked, and another has to deal with the Adirondack Park and the Catskill Park, the Forever Wild clause, whether they can essentially tinker with that a little bit, so that they can make it easier to do road repair and bury utility lines and put cable and broadband so there is another way to amend the constitution.

These ballot propositions have been voted on by two consecutively elected state legislatures, so they started several years ago, they’ve wound their way through, and now they’re before voters.

Do you have any feeling about what direction this might go on the 7th?

I do think that probably the union vote is gonna be a big factor because their members are motivated to go out and vote. It’s also on the back of the ballot, so a lot of people just might miss it and only vote on the front the various offices that they’re voting for. So there could be a lot of blank votes.

On the other hand, I mean, there’s a lot of volatility in politics, I mean that’s partly how we got President Trump. You see a lot of upset primaries these days, so it could be that people could look at that and say, “Yeah, let’s open it up. Let’s just open up the whole state government to try to reform it.”

Well, if the vote did turn out to be yes, then what would happen next, what would be the next set of steps?

I mean, that’s a good question, I mean, there’s a number of steps. They would first have to elect delegates, and those are chosen by state Senate district. So, next year in 2018, voters would go to the polls and elect the delegates and then presumably the convention would meet, there’s no limit on it, but I would assume they would probably meet the next year in 2019. And then their proposals will go before voters in 2019, maybe even 2020, so it’s a long process to go through. This would just be the start of it. If enough people voted yes, and it were to happen.

Well, I guess first thing we’re focused on then is what happens next Tuesday on the 7th. Karen DeWitt, we look forward to hearing from you after that vote.

Absolutely, you’re welcome.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.
Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.
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