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Featured Editorial

Does NYS Need a Constitutional Convention (Con Con)?

By Ronny Hardaway

Introduction

Countless opinions, articles, and discourses on New York State’s proposed Constitutional Convention, commonly called “Con Con,” inundate readers with what can be an overwhelming amount of information on the controversial topic. This article provides a brief overview of the history and process for the Constitutional Convention and its possible state constitutional amendments. Abridged lists of current pro and con positions on the Con Con are provided to assist voters with research and preparation for the Constitutional Convention Referendum on all state ballots in the November 7, 2017 general election. Please note that this is not an exhaustive or comprehensive coverage of the entire Con Con history, process, or issues. Use it as a starting point for personal research and decision-making.

History

New York State’s Con Con process evolved from positions offered by some of our country’s founders that laws and constitutions should be reviewed and revised regularly to reflect advances in knowledge, changes to human conditions, and the evolution of civilization. Time changes all things; therefore, laws and constitutions should be allowed to change with time and with the needs of the New York state’s residents.

Between the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 and 1997, New York has called 15 state constitutional conventions and ratified constitutional changes from 11 of those 15 conventions.[1] Not all proposed changes to the state constitution were ratified by voters; therefore, unratified changes to the state constitution were not incorporated.

The 1846 state constitutional convention inserted into the constitution a mandatory call for a constitutional convention at least every 20 years. The Legislature can also call for the same question to be put on the ballot at other times.[2] “Calling” a Con Con means that a ballot referendum allows state voters to decide if a Con Con should be held. No state constitutional conventions have been approved by voters since 1965. The last referendum for a Con Con was in 1997, so the November 2017 election ballots will let voters decide if a state Con Con is necessary.

Process

The following flowchart provides a graphical representation of the current state constitutional convention process and timeline.

Flowchart of the Constitutional Convention Process[3]

New York's Constitutional Convention Process

Vote on Con Con (Nov. 7, 2017)

On November 7, 2017, a referendum will be placed on all state election ballots. Voters must decide if a constitutional convention must be convened. If the referendum fails to pass, no convention will be held, and the next mandatory state convention will be called in 2037. If the referendum passes, the process of choosing delegates to the Con Con will begin.

Elect Delegates for Con Con (Nov. 8, 2017 – Nov. 6, 2018)

Between Nov. 8, 2017 and Nov. 6, 2018, New York residents will select their delegates to the state Con Con. Anyone who has been a state resident for five years prior to the election can run to be a Con Con delegate. Three delegates are chosen from each of New York’s 63 state senate districts, and fifteen additional delegates are selected statewide for a total of 204 delegates. How this mixed delegate system works is guided by the NY Legislature. The last time, the Legislature created a system whereby in each Senate district voters voted up or down for three candidates, and in the at-large election voted up or down for a party-based slate of candidates. The delegates will be selected in the Nov. 6, 2018 state election.

Con Con Convenes (Apr. 2, 2019)

On April 2, 2019, the Con Con will convene in Albany with all elected delegates in attendance.

Con Con Delegates Draft Constitutional Amendments (Apr. 2 – Nov. 2019)

From Apr. 2 and Nov. 2019 (the next general election), constitutional-amendment sausage is made in the Con Con. The elected delegates select amendment topics, create committees for each amendment topic, and draft the proposed wording of each amendment. The convention cannot be limited in the scope of what it considers; however, NYS voters cannot ratify any constitutional change in conflict with Federal law, including the U.S. Constitution.[4]

Con Con Recommends Constitutional Amendments to Voters (Nov. 2019)

The Con Con, as a body, votes to put their recommended changes on the ballot during the Nov. 2019 general election. At that election, voters choose to ratify or reject every proposed amendment to the state constitution. Delegates decide how to present the amendments to the voters – individually or as an aggregate. The 1967 Con Con offered amendments as one ballot item, and voters rejected the aggregated amendments so that no changes were made to the state constitution.

Ratified Changes Go into Effect (Jan. 1, 2020)

If voters ratify any amendment(s) to the state constitution, those changes go into effect January1 after the ratification (i.e., 2020.)

Pros and Cons of Con Con

Each side, pro and con, in the public debate on whether to approve or reject a state constitutional convention raise significant promises or concerns related to the Con Con. For the sake of brevity, the following subsections provide only a fragment of each side’s positions on the convention. Please spend some time and research how the Con Con might impact your particular circumstances or your personal issues regarding New York’s government and constitution.

Proponents’ Positions

For proponents, the New York Con Con provides our delegates the opportunity to:

  • Correct legislative dysfunction and corruption
  • Improve New York’s flawed electoral process
  • Enact ethics reform and penalties on public officials
  • Reform the state budget process
  • Add state protections to ensure healthy air to breathe, clean water to drink and address the causes and consequences of climate change.
  • Better secure a sound basic public school education through high school
  • Mandate affordable and debt-free tuition at public institutions of higher education
  • Make civil rights provisions more enforceable and expand their scope, now limited to race and religion, to address other forms of discrimination that prevent equal opportunity for all New Yorkers
  • Expand care for the needy
  • Make unfunded mandate legislation hard to pass by requiring heightened local fiscal impact analysis and ample opportunity for community input;
  • Strengthen local legislative autonomy by limiting state preemption;
  • Strengthen Home Rule and avoid enacting legislation aimed at a particular local government
  • Simplify, consolidate, and improve New York’s complex court structure.

Opponents’ Positions

Opponents to the New York Con Con raise the following concerns:

  • By law, the scope of the convention cannot be limited; therefore, popular and effective parts of the constitution might be threatened.
  • The constitutional convention could be dominated by extremist groups in the state, not average citizens
  • Corrupt politicians, lobbyists and well-funded special interest groups could pervert the constitution to their benefit
  • The Con Con could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Delegates will be paid the same as a state legislator ($80,000 per year) but their pay will be prorated for the time actually served as a delegate.
  • There is no set time limit to the convention; thereby increasing the cost of the convention without anything being accomplished
  • Dysfunctional state legislators with seasoned campaign staff could easily be elected to the Con Con which would, in turn, make the Con Con dysfunctional
  • State pensions could be jeopardized
  • Unions’ rights to organize and bargain could be stripped
  • Civil rights and civil liberties could be endangered
  • Free public education could be at risk
  • Protection of environmentally sensitive areas could be threatened (i.e., the “forever wild” provisions set forth in Article XIV of the NY Constitution.)

Summary

The process for the New York State call for a constitutional convention has evolved since the beginning of the United States. That process now gives registered New York voters a ballot-box choice every 20 years to decide if they want to hold a representative convention to propose amendments for ratification.

It is important for New York State voters to educate themselves on the complex possibilities and risks involved with the call for a state constitutional convention. On November 7, 2017, every voter must decide for themselves on whether the state should hold a Con Con. The potential rewards of Con Con-proposed amendments might solve many of New York’s governmental weaknesses or failings. The potential risks of Con Con amendments could threaten hard-fought gains within the current constitution.

If the state constitutional convention is held, voters must inform and guide their representatives to the Con Con so that amendments will improve the constitution rather than weaken it. New York voters must educate themselves on the proposed amendments so that they can cast a well-informed vote for or against ratification of individual, or grouped, amendments when those amendments are placed on a state ballot.

In the end, New York’s electorate will have the final say in any amendments recommended by the convention delegates.

Sources:

The New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse

Village Voice Article

New Yorkers’ Road Map to the Constitutional Convention

Endnotes

  1. Snider, J.H., “New York Charter and Constitutional Convention Chronology,” The New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse, Web: http://www.newyorkCon Con.info.
  2. Horner, B. Horner and Marulli, E. (New York Public Interest Research Group) and Robinson, S. (League of Women Voters of New York State), “Convention-Land: New Yorkers’ Road Map to the Constitutional Convention,” March, 2016. Web: http://www.nypirg.org/goodgov/Con Con/con_con_merged_final.pdf.
  3. Snider, op. cit., “Flowchart of the Constitutional Convention Process.”
  4. Ibid., “The Purpose of the Referendum.”
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