One of the more interesting votes this fall will be in New York, where residents will decide if they will call for a convention to amend the state’s constitution, which has been in effect since 1777.
The current state constitution requires a referendum every 20 years to ask voters if they want a convention to propose amendments outside of the normal process used in the state legislature. And in today’s political environment, there are strong opinions on both sides of the question.
Reformers concerned about corruption scandals at the state capital in Albany are pushing for a convention. Current office holders and union leaders are against a convention, fearing that it would result in lost workers’ rights.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been mostly noncommittal, but Cuomo has said publicly he likes the concept, but he’s also worried about special interests controlling the convention.
New York has called eight state conventions since John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and Robert R. Livingston drafted its first constitution, which was approved in April 1777, about 10 months after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia.
The state’s first constitution was based on the English constitutional system with several key differences. For example, the New York state allowed the people to pick the state’s chief executive directly. The first New York constitution also defined voting rights and religious freedoms, but it also didn’t allow for provisions for it to be amended.
In 1801, New York’s legislature had to pass a law to allow for a convention to be held on narrow grounds: to settle disputes over whether now Governor John Jay could nominate officials on his own, and who would decide the number of state lawmakers. United States Vice President Aaron Burr presided over that convention, which made three changes to the state constitution.
Over the years, subsequent New York state constitutional conventions settled matters about succession to the governor’s office; the ability of the governor to veto legislation; the reorganization of state courts; and the use of voting machines.
The last New York state constitutional convention that actually led to amendments approved by voters was held in 1938. Its proposed amendments that later became law included New York’s adoption of social welfare and transportation programs.
A convention held in 1967 was the last one approved by voters. Among its proposed amendments were the repeal of the state’s “Blaine Amendment,” which barred government aid to parochial schools, and a clause that allowed the state legislature to incur debts without a voter referendum. The amendments were presented in a package to voters, and they were easily defeated, with just 27 percent of voters approving the amendments.
Since then, voters rejected convention calls in 1977 (with just 40 percent asking for a convention) and 1997 (with 37 percent calling for a convention). In 2017, the question will be on the November ballot. A recent Siena College poll found that 67 percent of potential voters knew nothing about the 2017 referendum, but that 62 percent of people would back a convention, at least in concept.