© 2023 WRVO Public Media
Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Supporters want constitutional convention question on front of ballots

Payne Horning
WRVO News File Photo

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 20 years, New Yorkers have the chance to vote on whether the state should hold a constitutional convention. If it’s approved, delegates are elected from each state Senate district, and they meet to decide on potential changes to the state’s constitution.

A coalition that backs holding a convention said it could lose potential yes votes if the ballot proposal is not displayed on the front on the ballot when it next appears on Nov. 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 Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine and former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann.

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

Davis said opponents also could benefit from having the proposal in a prominent place on the ballot. He said 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 Gov. Mario Cuomo, the late father of Gov. 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 convention. He said 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 said a constitutional convention could enact early voting and same-day registration to make it easier to vote and outlaw the gerrymandering of legislative districts. He also said the wave of corruption at the Capitol could be addressed by perhaps creating a panel similar to the Commission on Judicial Conduct for the legislature and the governor’s office. He said 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, said 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 rights that exist 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 also are opposed. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said 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 warned 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 found New Yorkers are interested in holding a constitutional convention, although most admit they don’t know much about it.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.