Myths and realities of Constitutional Conventions discussed in Washington D.C.

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October 22, 2010

By Al Ortiz

WASHINGTON D.C.: Constitutional convention questions are on the ballot in four states on November 2, 2010, leaving those voters to decide if they should convene to amend their state document. On October 22, a conference was held at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. discussing the history of such conventions and the thought process behind them in terms of campaigning and voters' decisions on them. The four states that have constitutional convention questions on the ballot are Maryland, Michigan, Montana, and Iowa. The conference, held from 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., had six key speakers, including J.H. Snider, President of iSolon.org, acting as the mediator.

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The conference started with an opening statement by Snider, who called constitutional conventions "important institutes" that aren't very well known among voters. According to Snider, "This is a historic year (for constitutional conventions). Never in American history have there been four con-con questions on the ballot at the same time." In the opening statement, Snider also stated that so many convention questions won't appear on the ballot again until the year 2090.

With the stars aligning for constitutional convention questions, it was only fitting that the first speaker was John Woodcock, Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Central Connecticut State University, former Connecticut representative, and Vice-Chair of the Connecticut con-con yes campaign in 2008. Having been on the committee to support the passage of the constitutional convention question on the Connecticut 2008 ballot, Woodcock described how his campaign was run, who his opponents were and why his campaign was unsuccessful, as the measure was defeated by a vote of 59 percent to 41 percent. One reason the campaign was unsuccessful, says Woodcock, was that his campaign was outspent $1.5 million to $25,000.

Next in line to speak was Dan Friedman, Maryland Assistant Attorney General, who spoke specifically about the Maryland Constitution and its history of constitutional conventions, which he says there have been five in the state. One interesting tidbit that Friedman spoke about was the fact that the 1864 constitutional convention, which was held during the Civil War, was interrupted due to the Battle of Monocacy, as delegates had to leave the conference to defend their farmlands. At the tail end of his talking time, Friedman, who stated he did not have a position, claimed about this year's question on the Maryland ballot: "Since no one can point to a troubling defect of the constitution...it is unlikely that anyone would vote for the need to fix it."

Constitutional conventions on the ballot in 2010
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Robert Williams, Professor at Rutgers University-Camden, spoke about the reasons behind constitutional conventions. According to Williams, in the 19th century, there were a total of 93 con-cons, as many residents did not trust their legislators, particularly in South Dakota, where the state governor called for residents to not trust state lawmakers. Williams claimed, "We see the United States Constitution as this sacred document that can't be touched. At the state level, we see those constitutions as a day-to-day pragmatic document." However, as the 20th century came around, this trend discontinued, as fewer and fewer conventions were held. Williams gave his reasoning behind those conventions, stating that every person should have an opportunity to become involved with their government and that a convention requires you to weigh in on multiple considerations. He claimed, "It's easy to vote on tax reductions, but when you have to weigh in on how to supplement money used for programs that are funded by the tax, then it's different. Con-cons are very useful."

John Dinan, Associate Professor of Political Science at Wake Forest University, discussed the reasons why constitutional convention questions have failed in the past few decades. According to Dinan, the last con-con to be passed by voters was in Rhode Island in 1984. Dinan cited three reasons why constitutional conventions fail:

  • Citizen apathy and indifference; if citizens are indifferent, their default is to vote 'no'.
  • Particular groups call for the failure of the question, such as state legislators. Constitutional conventions are an alternative power source to state legislatures. Legislators worry that delegates in the conventions may rise to prominence and run for the very seats that legislators occupy.
  • Groups that have interest in a certain provision in the current constitution may worry that it may be done away with if the convention is held.

The last speaker, G. Alan Tarr, Professor at Rugters University-Camden, echoed Dinan by stating, "When people are in the dark, they are easy to scare...Either we take a leap of faith or a leap of desperation."

With the session concluding, it was clear that the speakers who took part in the conference were unsure about which measures would pass, if at all. However, it seemed to clear among them as to which of the four measures has gotten the most attention - which was the Iowa question.

In any case, November 2 is fast approaching and voters in those four states need to find out every myth and reality about constitutional conventions to make an informed decision either way, according to the panel of experts.

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