To the People of the State of New York:
Advocating for the ratification of a newly-created structure of government in the first of 51 essays he would write on behalf of the new constitution, Alexander Hamilton questioned whether Americans could establish “good government from reflection and choice” or be “forever destined to depend for…political constitutions on accident and force.”
The dilemma facing the nation in 1787 was more than just an exercise in constitutional theory from a long-gone era. On election day in 2017, voters in New York—Hamilton’s own state—will be again confronted with deciding the kind of state government we wish to have when we answer a simple question on the ballot: "Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?"
Your own answer to the referendum is up to you, of course, but we should resolve ourselves collectively to at least one conclusion: Let's not ignore the query.
Unlike our national constitution, the drafters of our present state constitution created a device for citizens to directly address fundamental questions about the way our government operates in Albany. In addition to New York, thirteen others have similar provisions for the periodic question of citizens initiating a constitutional convention. With Empire State predecessors providing the legal tools to reform bad government by placing the periodic question of whether we approve of a constitutional convention directly to voters, we are called once again to weigh in on this important referendum.
The mandatory 'constitutional convention' question presented to voters every 20 years gives each generation a voice and a choice about their government. The last time such a question was before the voters in this manner was in 1997. Despite the significance such a question could impose, more citizens casting ballots that year ignored the question entirely than answered “yes” or “no.”
The legal process for conducting a voter-initiated convention can be found outlined in Article XIX of the New York State Constitution:
1. A majority of state-wide voters consider the question of convening a constitutional convention on the ballot on November 7, 2017.
2. If a majority of voters approve the convention, three delegates in each of the 63 state senate districts and 15 statewide at-large delegates are elected by voters in November 2018.
3. These 204 delegates, once selected, then convene in Albany beginning in April 2019 for the limited purpose of holding a convention to discuss reforms to the supreme law of our state they have the ability to propose for consideration.
4. Changes approved by more than a majority of the delegates assembled are then put before voters, where an affirmative majority vote would ratify the changes to the state constitution.
Some will say that the convention is the only way to bring needed reforms. This is not true. The goal of those seeking reform over the next year should not be to advocate for a constitutional convention but to actually not need one. Our elected officials could exercise their power to avoid a costly convention by implementing the changes necessary to make our government more responsive.
There will be others who claim that a constitutional convention for our state would be an unprecedented and radical step. This is also not factual. While our nation has only had two governments at the national level since the American Revolution, 231 constitutional conventions have been held within the states since that same time period. In addition, New York has a history of constitutional contemplation, holding nine such conventions since our revolutionary first in 1776-1777.
Few politicians go to Albany to watch the pillars of government crumble around them. Armed with good intentions, they are often left shielded from expectations by the lament of a system that has frequently given way to far too many bad results.
The confidence New Yorkers have in the ability of elected officials to change our capital city is as low as our confidence in those we elect to serve there. Yet, in spite of the current problems in our state government, we can predict with some certainty that these officials will no doubt promise reform if pro-reform voices get loud enough. Voters should recognize that we have heard this song before and demand results instead of promises, action instead of the status quo.
It will soon be in our hands, the citizens of New York State, to decide whether we will have a state government as we have known or if Hamilton’s vision of “reflection and choice” will prevail. No matter how you vote in this once-in-a-generation referendum, let’s make sure we vote for the government we want. How Albany works—or fails to work—over the next twenty years may depend on it.
James Coll is an adjunct professor of American and Constitutional history at Hofstra University and the founder of ChangeNYS.org, a not-for-profit formed to promote civic education and political reform in our state.