By Jonathon Sizemore, Fellow, Center for New York City Law at NYLS
On November 7, every New Yorker who treks to their local polling place and pulls closed the curtain will have a question put to them: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” The question, put forth once every 20 years, affords New Yorkers the opportunity to evaluate the state’s governing document. The New York Constitution has not been amended by a constitutional convention since 1937.
On September 25, Citizens Union and NYLS co-hosted a forum to discuss the process and possibility of a constitutional convention. Dean Anthony W. Crowell introduced a panel of five speakers with varied experiences: Art Chang of SanctuaryStateNY.org, Danielle DeMatteo of Forward March NY, Professor Ross Sandler of NYLS’s Center for New York City Law, Brandon West of the New Kings Democrats, and Frederick Schaffer of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, who served as moderator.
DeMatteo, West, and Chang all spoke in favor of a constitutional convention. DeMatteo contended that it may be the only way to effectively protect women’s health care in New York, especially in light of the unlikelihood that the current state legislature will pass the Reproductive Health Act or the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act. West argued that a convention offers a means of addressing widespread issues that “the legislature does not have the appetite or interest to reform.” Chang drew on his experience of having served as a member of the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee—a group established to increase voter participation in New York City. He asserted that a constitutional convention is a mechanism to fix flaws in voting, a process that would otherwise require modifying the state’s laws, agencies, and regulations.
Professor Sandler argued against a convention based on his belief that a convention would be just as locked on controversial issues as the state legislature. He also argued for the benefits of a legislative process: that positions must be explained, that members must be reelected, and that members must represent their communities. These conditions and limitations, he noted, would result in a more deliberative process.