Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The New York State Constitutional Convention Question

New York State’s Constitutional History

                Although this document has been amended (more than 200 times since 1895), New York state is governed by a constitution which was adopted in 1894. 

On November 7, 2017, the citizens of New York will have the opportunity to vote on the question of whether to call a state constitutional convention for the purposes of proposing constitutional change and reform.  The state constitution itself mandates that this question be placed before the voters every twenty years (N.Y. Const., Art XIX, Sec 2).  In 1977 and 1997 (the last two mandatory votes), the voters turned the question down at the polls. 

If a majority of New Yorkers do vote yes on the 2017 ballot question, delegates (to be elected in 2018) would convene in 2019 with purpose of revising and amending the State’s constitution.  Whatever proposals the convention produces would not go into effect before being ratified (approved by the voters in a yes or no vote), whether individually or as a single-package.  There have been only 3 post-1894 constitutional conventions: in 1915, 1938 and 1967 (a convention called by the state legislature and approved by the voters). Only 1 of these (1938) resulted in significant revision; the proposals of the 1915 and 1967 conventions were rejected by voters when submitted for ratification. In 1967, voters were presented with ratification as a single package -- meaning that their ballot choice was to accept all of the proposed changes or none at all.  The rejection of the convention's work after a time-consuming and expensive process discouraged some voters from supporting a convention in 1997.  

Why It Matters

                The 2017 vote is a historic opportunity for New York's citizens to demand constitutional reforms and to directly participate in the governance of their state.  The potential topics for consideration include: strengthening state ethics and public-corruption laws, state legislative redistricting and reforms, campaign finance reform, the redefinition of gubernatorial powers and implementation of clear succession rules, state court and judicial selection reform, taxation, and state and local government financing reform.  Among the many policy issues for potential consideration would be state gaming laws, environmental protections, reproductive rights, protections for minorities, immigrants, and refugees, and state educational standards. On a daily basis, we are each of us, impacted directly by the functioning (or lack thereof) of our state and local governments.  The decisions made in Albany have significant repercussions for all New Yorkers both upstate and down. A lot has changed since 1894, and many of the issues about which we care deeply are shaped by state constitutional provisions

The New York State Legislature: Photo credit, Lisa Parshall

In the current divide over the executive actions and policies of the newly elected Trump Administration, the role of state and local government is on display as never before. Citizens who are dissatisfied with national policy trends have always turned to their state governments to protect and preserve their interest. In the United States Constitutional system, federalism (and the sovereign role of the states) is one of the great checks and balances, ensuring the comity of local and national interests.  Citizens look to and use their state government to impact and to respond to policy changes at the national level. There is perhaps no greater moment for achieving reform than through the state constitutional convention.   
How to Learn More    

              Sienna College's statewide polling has found that, although 69% of New York voters support calling a convention, more than two-thirds of them have not seen or read information on the upcoming vote.  The League of Women Voters and the Rockefeller Institute of Government are two good places to start if you want to learn more.  On these sites you will find details on the history and work of New York's past constitutional conventions, as well as links to editorials and news coverage of the upcoming “Con-Con” vote. 

                On April 22, 2017, the State and Local Politics Section of the New York State Political Science Association (NYPSA), will be holding a keynote roundtable event featuring a panel of leading experts on the history and politics of the New York State Constitutional Convention.. Daemen students and faculty are encouraged to attend.

For more information on this event, please contact, Dr. Lisa Parshall, Chair, State and Local Politics Section of the NYSPSA: ( 

                In Fall 2017, the History & Political Science Department will be offering PSC 114, State and Local Politics, a course dedicated to promoting civic literacy and an understanding of the critical role played by state and local governments.  A number of our majors have conducted senior thesis projects on issues of state and local importance, including state senate redistricting (Altman-Cosgrove, 2012), ethics and corruption reforms (Fripp, 2016) and state constitutional conventions (Maulucci, 2016). 

Cartoon, "It Shouldn't Happen Here," by Jerry Costello, May 2, 1938, Knickerbocker News, Archival Image from
the New York State Archives collected by Dr. Lisa Parshall in her research on state constitutional history.
Opponents of state constitutional conventions express skepticism regarding the ability of the convention to implement reform in the voters' interest. The argument is that the delegate selection process favors the selection of elected leaders and party officials -- insiders with vested interests and the capacity to block significant reform.  
Cartoon, "What the People Expect," by Jerry Costello, April 18, 1938, Knickerbocker News, Archival Image from  
the New York State Archives collected by Dr. Lisa Parshall in her research on state constitutional history.  
This image highlights the high expectations the public has for "statesmanlike leadership" in the solemn task of  state constitutional reform and lurking danger when partisan bickering and politics infiltrates the convention process.  The constitution directs the delegate selection process -- the reform of which is itself a potential target for revision by the convention. 


Lisa Parshall said...

A couple of people have asked me about the delegate selection process. The state constitution Article XIX, Sec 2 provides each senate district elects 3 and 15 at-large be elected statewide. That means there would be 204 delegates to be elected. Any qualified voter is eligible to run as a delegate -- the process is the same as for the election of any other state office. Delegates are compensated at the rate of assembly persons (state elected leaders receive dual compensation). Great questions!

Laura Wittern said...
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