The Democratic View: ConCon on the Ballot

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By Kathy Zahler

The New York State Constitution is older than the U.S. Constitution – older, far longer, and much more specific. The genius of the U.S. Constitution derives from its simplicity. The state Constitution, like constitutions in other states, is significantly more complex.

Right now, we use the 1894 Constitution. Versions from earlier eras were superseded by that document, which has been amended multiple times.

To amend the state Constitution requires one of two processes. The first is legislative. Legislators propose an amendment in committee. If the amendment makes it out of committee, it goes to the Assembly and Senate, where a majority may choose to pass it. Following that vote, the amendment requires a second passage by the Assembly and Senate after the next general election of Assembly members. And then, in the next general election, it goes to the voters, who have the final up or down vote.

The last time we voted on amendments of that kind was in 2014. We set up a commission to consider redistricting, we allowed legislators to receive bills electronically instead of in paper form, and we approved a bond for technology in schools. Ballotpedia tells me that since 1996, we’ve approved 18 of 25 legislatively proposed amendments. Examples include using forest reserve lands for wells in Hamilton County (2007) and allowing prisoners to perform volunteer work for nonprofit organizations (2009). See what I mean about specific?

The other way to amend the state Constitution is to hold a Constitutional Convention, nicknamed “ConCon.” At the convention of 1938, the state determined that in 1957 and every 20 years thereafter, the question of whether to hold a convention must appear on the ballot. Legislators may put the question on the ballot at any other time, but the last time such an initiative made it out of committee was 1965, not coincidentally the last time a convention was approved. That convention took place in 1967, because it’s a long process from the initial vote to the opening gavel.

On November 7, in addition to the names of candidates who are running in your election district, you will see three proposals on the ballot. Proposal 1 is the ConCon question. Proposal 2, stemming from recent indictments, asks whether we should let judges revoke the pension of a public official convicted of a felony related to his or her duties. Proposal 3 requests the creation of a 250-acre land bank to provide forest preserve land for local projects in the “forever wild” area of the Adirondacks.

Unless your local list of candidates is very limited, expect to see those proposals on the back of the ballot, where such initiatives usually reside. In the old lever-machine days, they’d be scattered along the top where no one could find them.

Ballotpedia claims that approximately twice as much money has been raised in opposition to the ConCon than in favor of it, which matches what I’m seeing in ads and online conversation. I have read a stunning amount of misinformation, including the complete fabrication that a failure to vote is the same as a “yes” vote.

We vote using optical scanners, so how would that work? It’s propaganda. Whether a ballot measure passes depends on the votes cast – not the numbers of people who vote in all, but the numbers of people who vote on that particular ballot measure.

If the ConCon were approved, the next step would involve the Legislature, which makes the rules for election of delegates. We’d elect those delegates, three residents of each state Senate district plus 15 at large, in November 2018. The delegates would choose their leaders and adopt their own rules, and the ConCon would open in April 2019. Then, as the final step, we citizens would get to vote “yes” or “no” on every amendment the ConCon proposed.

This is not a partisan choice, as it happens. I know plenty of people on both sides of the issue from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Just arm yourself with information, preferably from a neutral source rather than one with an ax to grind, and don’t forget to flip your ballot before you leave the voting booth on November 7!

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Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee.

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