New York held a constitutional convention. It was an expensive waste of time.
- In 1967, New Yorkers held a constitutional convention to make key changes to their founding document.
- The convention devolved into petty politicking disputes, and resulted in major compromises to even get all the changes passed.
- Because of the scope of the changes, voters were given a “yes-or-no” vote on the accepting all changes in entire document – and they voted NO by an overwhelming margin.
- Alaskans should heed the warnings of New York’s experience, and vote NO on Ballot Measure 1 this November.
Alaska is one of 14 states that require voters to be asked regularly if they want to hold a constitutional convention. New York is another, and it’s probably the most relevant example of what an Alaska constitutional convention could look like. In 1967, New Yorkers voted to hold a constitutional convention, which lasted six months and cost taxpayers $15 million ($127 million in 2022 dollars), then they voted 72% to 28% to reject all constitutional changes approved at the convention.
Let’s take a look at what happened, and what lessons Alaska can take away from New York’s attempt to transform their founding document using the convention process.
New Yorkers wanted to make a few changes. What could go wrong?
By 1967, New Yorkers were frustrated with several legislative issues that kept going back and forth in the state legislature, but were never resolved definitively. Sound familiar? Many Alaskans have raised similar concerns about our own state legislature, arguing that they seem to struggle every year over routine issues, like how to balance the budget.
A constitutional convention seemed like a reasonable way to go around the Legislature, elect citizens to serve as delegates to the convention, and put matters into voters’ hands. So, New Yorkers voted 53% to 47% to hold a constitutional convention.
Though it was touted as a “people’s convention” and a way to bypass what many saw as legislative inactivity, some folks who were already experienced at running campaigns for office – a.k.a. legislators – also ran as delegates to the convention. So, not only did they double-dip, being paid as both legislators and delegates, but many of those who were responsible for partisan gridlock in the Legislature were the same ones debating a new constitution. Even the convention chair was the sitting speaker of the New York Legislature.
In other words, what’s the point of a constitutional convention if it’s going to be the same people voicing the same talking points and same agendas that caused the problem in the first place?
After it was all over and millions of dollars had been spent, the convention put all proposed (and delegate-approved) changes to the New York Constitution on the ballot as one bundle. So, if there was one change a voter liked, they had to vote to accept all the others, even changes they very much did not like.
And unsurprisingly, New York voters responded to the convention with a loud, clear vote of “No, thanks,” rejecting the constitutional rewrite by an almost 3-to-1 margin.
So, what’s at stake in Alaska?
Our state Constitution requires voters to be asked every 10 years if we want to hold a constitutional convention. And as we see from New York’s example, a constitutional convention is not about amending one or two laws or policy changes. A constitutional convention puts every single provision in our founding document on the table for revision. If we want to change one law, we might have to accept other changes we do not want.
That’s a poison pill, and an unnecessary Pandora’s box – we’ve already used the amendment process 40 times to make targeted, specific changes to our constitution, and those efforts have been successful 28 times. It’s a mechanism that ensures widespread buy-in and that citizens fully understand the issues at stake. On the other hand, the sheer number of potential changes possible at a convention and their impacts create a scenario where Alaskans won’t have a clear understanding of what changes they’re voting on. That’s bad in and of itself, but also increases the chances that, much like New York, all of them could be rejected.
There are other risks, too. Long-term economic uncertainty is likely as businesses and families try to make sense of what a fundamental rewrite of our founding document could mean for them. Much is at stake, and given the example of New York, a constitutional convention in Alaska seems rife with downsides, and very little potential reward.
Alaskans have voted to reject a constitutional convention five times in our state’s history. The potential risk holding a convention would create for our way of life is simply not worth it. Let’s make this year the sixth time we vote “NO” on the constitutional convention ballot question.