Why NO vote on Constitutional Convention is important to you (commentary)


STATEN ISLAND — On Nov. 7, the voters can vote on whether to hold a future election for delegates to a Constitutional Convention to amend or completely rewrite the New York State Constitution.

Every 20 years the decision to hold a state Constitutional Convention is on the ballot.

After careful consideration, the South Shore Democratic Club urges all New Yorkers to vote NO.

We’ve listened carefully to advocates for both sides of the issue, attended debates and forums and done extensive research on past conventions and the delegate process. We’ve done this to honor our commitment to civic engagement.

We’re urging a NO vote for several basic reasons:

  1. The Specter of unlimited and unaccountable amounts of money will most likely have a distorting effect on the election of delegates, a process which effectively precludes the nomination of most New Yorkers.
  2. There are over 200 political, religious, civic and union organizations across the political spectrum from the Conservative Party to the NRA to the New York State AFL-CIO urging a NO vote.
  3. The delegate selection process puts Staten Island and New York City at a distinct disadvantage which would make a Constitutional Convention a fight between upstate and downstate, urban versus rural, and suburban versus rural likely resulting in a stalemated convention.

Our state constitution was first enacted in 1777, 10 years before the U.S. Constitution. Because of the Declaration of Independence each colony had to devise a government. It is important to remember that the idea of a democratic republic form of government was truly revolutionary. The world had never seen anything quite like it. Whether it could function and survive was a very real question — a question which would be resolved by the Civil War.

Perhaps the most important factor our revolutionary ancestors could not foresee is the influence of unprecedented amounts of money in our present-day elections. Money has always been part of our elections; in our earliest days voters were encouraged to vote by candidates providing food and alcoholic beverages at polling sites.

What was unforeseen is the amount of money exacerbated by the Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United which allows unregulated amounts of untraceable money which will surely be used to elect delegates thereby endangering state constitutional guarantees about public education, workers’ rights, the forever wild Adirondacks and Catskills, collective bargaining, workers compensation, public workers’ pensions and many other provisions which have the support of most New Yorkers.

The idea that the delegate selection process is open to all New Yorkers is an illusion.

Candidates would be elected three from each state senate district and 15 at large on a statewide basis. There are 63 state Senate districts; therefore, there would be 204 delegates.

To compete for a nomination a candidate in a state senate district would have to petition: 5 percent of the total gubernatorial vote or 1,000 signatures for a party nomination or 3,000 signatures for an independent nomination.

Most likely those signatures would be challenged; that means a candidate would have to acquire twice the number of required signatures and be prepared to hire an attorney to defend the signatures at the Board of Elections.

Advocates for the convention contend that the salary of $79,500 for a delegate (the base salary of a state legislator) would attract non-politicians to run. How many employers would guarantee a delegate to return to their job after taking an unknown amount of time off to attend a convention?

For these reasons, it is unlikely that most New Yorkers would run for delegate; instead, elected officials and lobbyists would most likely be delegates who could then collect being paid twice for the duties they could presently perform as elected officials.

Also, there is no time limit to the length of a convention potentially running the cost to the taxpayers into the many millions.

Electing delegates by state senate district is a disadvantage to Staten Island and New York City.

Of the 63 State Senate districts, 26 are in New York City; of those 11/2 are on Staten Island. Staten Island itself would elect only three delegates.

This would likely set up a confrontation between delegates representing New York City, and Staten Island, and the other delegates. We could be outvoted 126 to 78: a margin that does not lend itself to compromise in the current condition of political polarization.

The state constitution has been amended nearly 200 times by the action of consecutively elected legislatures placing referendum on the ballot for a vote by the citizens.

Court reorganization was achieved in this manner.

In fact, there are two referendum in addition to the Constitutional Convention on this year’s ballot extending the amount of land to be preserved in the Adirondacks, the other denying public officials convicted of corruption their pensions.

We believe that although this process is cumbersome, it is preferable to putting the guarantees the current constitution provides at risk.

Ironically, most advocates for and against the State Constitutional Convention want voting reforms, campaign spending changes, home rule for cities, court restructuring, and many other changes. The disagreement is on what mechanism in our political system to use to make changes.

For all the above reasons, the South Shore Democratic Club urges our fellow New Yorkers to vote NO on Nov. 7 on the question of a state Constitutional Convention.

(Rosemarie Mangano Cavanagh is president of the South Shore Democratic Club.)