State Constitution on November Ballot

The question on Election Day will be whether Albany could get any worse. New York voters will be asked on Nov. 7 to approve or reject a proposition that would trigger a constitutional convention, which could potentially revise state government completely. Support for the measure is divided along party lines, with conservatives generally urging against it and liberals saying yes. But thinking about the proposition in terms of ideological goals without considering the realities of how the process would work would be a mistake.

If voters agree to the possible rewriting of the State Constitution, a convention would be organized for the spring of 2019. Three delegates from each State Senate district would be elected, along with 15 at-large delegates. Once the convention got going, the delegates could throw out the entire State Constitution, pick and choose some portions to change, or even do nothing at all. Any revisions would have to be taken to the voters for ultimate approval.

A central argument in favor of a constitutional convention is that anticorruption efforts have failed in Albany and that the delegates might propose tough measures that would never make it through the State Legislature. Advocates also say that new rules, such as allowing early voting, would strengthen public participation in government and that a “bill of rights” could further protect access to abortion at a time when the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are assaulting it. The convention could also break New York governors’ death grip on the budget process and some judgeships, and return more power to New York City officials. The State Constitution has not been updated since 1938, and some consider that enough reason for a yes vote.

Opposition comes not just from the right, but from many elected officials on the center and left who worry that union labor rights and pensions might be undermined. Some Republicans worry that a convention could shift the state even further toward liberal ideas. Firearms groups are concerned that anti-gun provisions might gain ground. Environmentalists say that important protections could be lost, depending on who the delegates are and how much pressure might be put on them to trade away existing rules.

Important for eastern Long Island voters to consider is who would represent them should a constitutional convention be called. Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, a Republican, has represented District One, which extends from Montauk to Port Jefferson, since 1976. It is safe to assume that the delegates elected to attend the convention from this district would be aligned with his views. However, they almost certainly would end up being drawn from the populous western end of the region, and not necessarily act in the East End’s best interest.

Odds are that the vote on Proposition One will fail, as did a similar proposition when the matter was last on the ballot, in 1997. As voters think about the issue, they should ask themselves to what degree they would trust those sitting for a constitutional convention to get it right. If the process is just an extension of how things are in state government now, the answer might well be not very much.