In November, New Yorkers will vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention (or Con Con, as its been called). For many parts of the state, it’ll be the most consequential and contentious election of the year. But what’s it all about?

A Constitutional Convention? What’s that?

Remember your old high school history textbook with Washington, Hamilton, Franklin, and Madison coming together in Philadelphia to write the Constitution? Well so New York’s Constitutional Convention will be a little like that, but for New York and without the Founding Fathers.

Every 20 years, New Yorkers vote on whether to hold a convention to revise the state’s constitution. If we vote in favor of the convention, we’ll then elect delegates who can propose amendments to the constitution. We’ll then get the chance to actually vote on the amendments.

It’s a long process.

So how will the New York Constitutional Convention work?

Take a look at this graphic flowchart:

The first step of the New York Constitutional Convention timeline begins this November on Election Day, November 7th. We’ll vote yes or no on whether to initiate the process of holding a constitutional convention. If the vote goes “No”, then the process ends there. If the “Yes” side wins, then we’ll hold another vote to elect delegates in 2018. They’ll propose amendments and there’ll be a third vote in 2019 on whether to approve the amendments.

How are the delegates elected?

In total, there will be 204 delegates, three from each Senate district (for 189) and then 15 from the state as a whole. The delegates will be elected just the same way as legislators with party primaries (presumably in September 2018) and then a general election vote on November 6th, 2018.

This means that there will be Democratic candidates for delegate and Republican candidates for delegate. Independents could also run, too. It’s not exactly clear how the convention itself would operate but presumably there would be a Republican Party group of delegates and a Democratic Party group of delegates. In the most recent convention, the Assembly Speaker chaired the constitutional convention and it’s likely established leaders would also be very influential in the convention.

How has this worked in the past?

New York hasn’t changed its constitution through a convention since 1936. In 1957, 1977, and 1997, voters rejected a convention. In 1968, there was a convention (after voters called one in 1967) but the amendment was voted down at the polls, largely because it included everything in one question.

The last time New York actually passed amendments proposed by the constitutional convention was 1938 when they voted for six of nine sets of amendments (there were actually 57 amendments but they were organized in nine different questions). These amendments created rights for public employees, allowed the state to spend money on social services including education and healthcare, and enabled New York City to finance the subway system.

In the 1938 Constitutional Convention, Robert Moses actually played a major role. Most infamously, he successfully weakened an anti-segregation amendment, preventing it from doing as much to protect the rights of African Americans.

The 1894 Constitutional Convention was more impactful, however. Most famously, the Constitution protected the Forest Preserve in the Catskills and Adirondacks so that they would be “forever wild.” It also abolished convict labor and provided for the secret ballot in voting.

What might be changed?

The constitutional convention can do virtually whatever they want from writing a new constitution to proposing only minor amendments to the existing one. However, most of the talk has revolved around a few specific issues:

  • Making it easier to vote (the Daily News called for same-day registration and mail-in absentee balloting)
  • Limiting gerrymandering
  • Ethics reform to prevent corruption and public financing of elections
  • Empowering New York City to set its own laws with less interference from state government (also called “home rule”), especially important for rent regulation and affordable housing.
  • Reorganizing New York State government to remove some of the unnecessary bureaucracy

There’s also talk about other issues, though these seem lower-priority or more controversial and so are less likely to pass:

Can the legislature also propose amendments?

Yes, the State Assembly and Senate can always vote to amend the state constitution. Both chambers need to pass the amendment in two subsequent sessions. Then it is submitted for voters to approve, just the same way that amendments proposed by the constitutional convention will need to be approved. In 2013, the state legislature passed an amendment to allow casino gambling and voters approved it.

However, the legislature can’t pre-empt the constitutional convention. If both propose an amendment about the same topic, the constitutional convention’s proposal will be the only one submitted to voters.

Where do elected leaders stand?

Legislative leaders have generally opposed the Con Con with cynics saying that a New York Constitutional Convention could erode their power.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says that it could roll back workers rights: “There are some very wealthy people who want to open up the constitution and really undo some of the protections for labor.”

Meanwhile, a Senate Republican flack says that it would be too NYC-heavy: “The convention could be dominated by New York City special interests, which would be disastrous for Upstate, the Hudson Valley and Long Island.”

However, the minority parties in both the Senate and Assembly have been in favor of making change through a Constitutional Convention.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) is a strong supporter, perhaps because his party is a small minority of the Assembly:

Voter empowerment is part of the very fabric of who we are as a nation. There is no more effective way to engage the public than a Constitutional Convention, and there is no place that needs it more than Albany.

Democratic Senator Michael Gianaris (Queens), the Deputy Democratic Leader in the Senate, also called for making change through a convention.

We are in such need of dramatic change in the state that a convention would be a great way to kind of turn the whole thing over and start fresh.

What about outside of government?

Editorial pages have generally been in favor with the Daily News in particular saying that the opposition from elected officials is a good reason to support the Con Con:

The surest sign New York voters should approve a state Constitutional Convention in the once-every-two-decades opportunity coming this November is the caterwauling against the con con among the power players in Albany’s Legislature.

The League of Women Voters also supports the Constitutional Convention:

“New York State’s political leaders have failed for the past two decades to enact meaningful reform and make democracy work in our state,” said Dare Thompson, President of the League. “In this 100th anniversary year of women getting the vote in New York State, New Yorkers will be able to send a strong message that they are fed up with corruption and dysfunction in Albany.”

Union leaders are strongly against the Con Con. NY State United Teachers President Andrew Pallota thinks that it would be controlled by wealthy special interests that could undo protections for workers:

This wouldn’t be a people’s convention. It would be a taxpayer- funded party for politicians and their hedge-fund backers.

Billionaires would run the show.

However, Evan Davis, a former counsel to Gov. Mario Cuomo, staunchly supports the Con Con since the legislature isn’t going to do anything by itself:

New Yorkers can vote to hold a Constitutional Convention, or they can wait for another two decades and hope that the Legislature becomes reform-minded in the meantime. History suggests we could be waiting a long time.

Alan Chartock, publisher of the Legislative Gazette is skeptical, thinking that politicians might control the constitutional convention and prevent it from enacting real reforms:

These esteemed characters would load the thing with their friends and allies and the outcome of such a convention would be no better than that of its predecessors.

Former Republican Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy disagreed, writing that it’s the only real way to reform government:

Yes, the unions and special interests, already so deeply organized, have the potential to derail the convention, but it’s probably worth the risk.

If you think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that the state legislature will finally see the light and pass these reforms, then vote against the constitutional convention. But if not, let’s roll the dice and give it a chance. It may be the only shot we will ever get in our lifetimes to stop the annual exodus of 185,000 New Yorkers to cheaper states.

How to Get Involved:

Want to get involved before it’s time to vote in November? No New York Convention, also called New Yorkers Against Corruption, seems to be leading the No side. Meanwhile, there appear to be several groups supporting the Yes argument, including NY People’s Convention and the Committee for a Constitutional Convention. All those groups have websites where people interested in volunteering or donating can sign up.

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

Posted by Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein is the founder of ShakingNews.

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