By Curtis Silwa and Bob Capano
New Yorkers should vote “yes” for a state Constitutional Convention on Election Day because our government needs reform and the politicians in Albany have continuously demonstrated that their priority is maintaining the status quo.
Article 19, Section 2 of our New York State Constitution requires that every 20 years voters decide whether or not to hold a Constitutional Convention. The mere fact that the career politicians of both political parties strongly oppose a Constitutional Convention demonstrates how much they fear the will of the people.
If voters choose to hold a Constitutional Convention, three delegates from each state Senate district, along with 15 at-large delegates, will be elected by the people in November 2018. After this, these citizen representatives will meet to discuss changes to our state constitution. Any proposed amendments are then put before the voters for approval in the next general election. In short, we support a Constitutional Convention because we trust the people, not the politicians. The last state convention that had changes approved by the voters came in 1938; this convention should be the next one.
Like the American Constitutional Convention of 1787 that led to the world’s greatest example of democracy, a state constitutional convention is the best opportunity for reform because it would be called for — and run by — the people directly.
New York state needs initiative and referendum, as well as term limits for state elected officials. Initiative and referendum allows the people to decide key policy issues. Blue states, like California, and red states, like Arizona, have initiative and referendum. This has resulted in increased voter turnout because the passion of the people around particular issues comes to the forefront, and they are engaged. Voters care more about issues, not elected officials, and this inspires them to be more involved in our political process.
The list of issues that could be put before voters to decide through initiative and referendum that would spark voter interest and debate are endless. It could include whether or not to have red-light cameras, voucher programs for private and parochial schools, or fees on plastic bags. Regardless of the issue, people would be discussing these topics at town halls, diners and school yards throughout the state, building momentum for more participation on election days.
A Constitutional Convention can also propose term limits for state elected officials. Albany politicians will never approve term limits by themselves because their main interest is maintaining and accumulating power. Haven’t we seen enough New York politicians convicted of bribery because they think they are immune to laws simply as a result of their longevity in office?
We also need to ease ballot access. One should not need an army of lawyers to get through the petitioning process to be on the ballot, and voters should not have to wait almost a year for their change of party affiliation to be implemented. Entrenched incumbents benefit from making it as difficult as possible for newcomers to challenge them so they have no interest in these changes either.
Gerrymandering of state and congressional legislative seats must end. Although the United States Supreme Court ruled that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional in Thornburg vs. Gingles (1986), drawing districts based on political party affiliation is permitted. This has led to the incumbency protection plans we have today because seats are safely held by Republicans or Democrats. Therefore, these elected officials do not have to worry about serious challengers and can afford to only pay attention to their political base. This is why we have more sustained gridlock in Albany and Washington. A Constitutional Convention can offer a proposed amendment to create a real independent redistricting commission to draw districts every 10 years after the census. This would lead to more competitive races where members of all political parties, and not just Republicans and Democrats, have a real chance to win. Elected officials would be forced to listen to all voices in their districts. Again, the career politicians in Albany would never take this step on their own because their priority is keeping their jobs as long as possible by having easy re-elections every two years through having carefully drawn districts that all but guarantees their continued time in office.
We know that the Albany crowd opposes all of these changes to state government. Therefore, a Constitutional Convention is the only chance to implement them. Opponents of the convention are frightening voters into what changes could happen that would adversely affect particular unions or interest groups. Simply put: Whether or not to vote to approve a Constitutional Convention comes down to hope versus fear of the unknown. We can’t hope any longer that the career Albany politicians will do the right thing to reform and improve our government. We must have faith in the people. In 1846, Ansel Bascom was one of the authors of the provision allowing voters to decide on a Constitutional Convention every 20 years and he stated, “All power is preserved to the people … once every 20 years they might take the matter [of how they are governed] … into their own hands.”
We must seize this opportunity on Nov. 7 and vote “Yes” for a New York State Constitutional Convention.
Guardian Angels’ founder and radio show host Curtis Sliwa is the chairman of the New York State Reform Party. Bob Capano is the Reform Party candidate in Brooklyn’s 43rd City Council District.