By Sean Hillson
In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. began by stating the following: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”
While others may not draw the connection, I find a great similarity between Dr. King’s realization and the current debate about whether to hold a constitutional convention in New York State. From the “no” side, we hear that a convention is too risky, the process will favor special interests and big money or we can just rely upon the legislature to make amendments. These may be legitimate opinions, to varying degrees, but all have fatal flaws and the moral and rational arguments greatly favor voting in of a convention.
With regard to risk – yes, a convention is a risk which exposes some rights and protections, but it also provides the opportunity to adopt new policies to strengthen our civil liberties, so the sword cuts both ways.
Furthermore, it has the potential to make reforms that diminish the influence of big money and special interests, so the “elites” must view it as a risk as well. This latter fact likely explains why the moneyed interests have not funded an organized “yes” campaign – the constitutional convention would have a high degree of uncertainty, which is anathema to their preferred methods for maintaining power.
Rather, the “no” proponents are investing much more in a fear-mongering campaign against what amounts to a decoy opposition.
With regard to the process, it may favor the special interests slightly, but these hurdles are not insurmountable. First, although delegates may be selected by state senate districts (gerrymandered to slightly favor Republicans), the addition of 15 state-wide delegates would immediately overcome this numerical advantage.
Furthermore, due to how the districts are gerrymandered, some Democratic senate districts could elect three like-minded delegates, whereas Republican districts are likely to be split 2-1 between competing ideologies. However, due to the nature of the constitutional convention, hopefully anti-partisan independent candidates that are reform-focused will run and voters of all persuasions will be attracted to these individuals. After all, whatever you may think of Donald Trump, his “Drain the Swamp” rhetoric had tremendous appeal, so voters from Republican districts are seeking reform as well.
Finally, we cannot expect the legislature to pass all possible amendments, as some would infringe upon their perceived prerogatives. For example, the legislature will never pass term limits. This doesn’t mean that term limits should be imposed, but if delegates campaign on this and get elected, then it certainly should be put to a vote.
There are other issues, like the allocation of electors to the Electoral College, where national partisan concerns would take precedence over the interests of citizens of New York. For instance, if New York’s electors were allocated proportionally, this would help Republicans and third parties; however, if implemented nationally, proportional allocation would eliminate swing states, where manipulation proliferates, and shift the result closer to the national popular vote, generally favoring Democrats.
As the Empire State, New York has tremendous influence across the entire country. Therefore, we should vote “yes” for a constitutional convention to set the standard for how we can reform our government and provide a model that conscientious citizens in other states can follow.
Sean Hillson is a PhD candidate at Cornell University.
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