This post has been updated.
This coming Tuesday, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to call for a state constitutional convention. While the idea of revising the state constitution is an attractive one, to do so now would be at best a non-event with costly side-effects, and at worst a dangerous exercise in the rollback of currently-existing protections. As a result, we urge voters to reject a constitutional convention at the ballot box this week.
In the event of a convention, almost all delegates would be elected from existing state senate districts (15 would be elected at-large). The state senate map is consistently gerrymandered by the Republicans who have controlled the upper chamber for all but three years since 1938. Even as New York has turned reliably Democratic over the previous four decades (Hillary Clinton won almost 60 percent of the vote there in 2016, and Democrats occupy 19 of the state’s 27 congressional districts), the Republicans have managed to retain control of the Senate (of late with the help of a group of turncoat “Democrats” known as the Independent Democratic Conference), and there is no reason to believe that advantage will be at all diminished during delegate elections.
Moreover, the specter of dark money will surely hang heavy over any delegate selection process. The recent Citizens United decision has created new avenues for the ultra-rich to exert undue influence over political proceedings. Trump mega-donor and Long Island billionaire Robert Mercer (who until recently was a major owner in Breitbart News and has a long professional relationship with Steve Bannon) has previously supported through his private family foundation a nationwide effort to call for constitutional conventions, as have GOP bankrollers Charles and David Koch. The best way to avoid handing the mega-rich the keys to the convention is to not give them the chance to get them at all.
Proponents of the convention argue that it will allow New Yorkers to directly disinfect the cesspool that is Albany politics. And certainly, Albany is due for a cleaning. The recent corruption convictions of both the State Senate majority leader and Speaker of the House of Representatives (though both overturned in the wake of the disastrous McDonnell v. United States Supreme Court decision), as well as the ongoing federal bribery and fraud case against members of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s inner circle are merely the latest entries in a long history of misgovernment. And though not illegal, the propensity of Albany politicians to engage in contentious and often personally aggressive spats with New York City only harms New Yorkers across the state.
Fortunately, we don’t need a constitutional convention to clean out Albany. We have the opportunity to do that every two years during the primaries and general election. Instead of spending an inordinate amount of money on a constitutional delegate campaign, those resources are better spent electing state senators and assembly members who can enact real change without jumping through the various hoops and risking the various pitfalls inherent to constitutional conventions.
Rather than throwing money at a convention that will likely end in deadlock or worse, focus on achievable goals like the removal of the Independent Democratic Conference. Every member of this group of legislators, which chose larger offices and cushier committee assignments over the interests of the state, should face primaries in their districts. If you really want to send a message to the petty politicians in Albany, start by lowering the 90 percent incumbent reelection rate. A constitutional convention campaign will only serve as a money suck, and as a distraction from the greater goal of reducing corruption.
A “no” vote is certainly the less sexy of the two options, but given the current state politics and the issues at hand, it is the best choice for New Yorkers this Tuesday.
Correction: A previous version of this editorial misstated the position of Reclaim New York. That non-profit group, although it has ties to the Mercer family, has not taken and will not take a position on the convention question, and will not enter into delegate races if they occur, according to Reclaim New York Initiative communications director Doug Kellogg.