Every 20 years New Yorkers get to decide if they want a constitutional convention — now is their chance

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his fourth State of the State address from the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York, in 2014.

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New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his fourth State of the State address from the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York, in 2014.
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Mike Segar/Reuters

    New York voters will decide on Tuesday whether they want a constitutional convention. The last convention took place 50 years ago. A constitutional convention could reshape the government of New York. The next opportunity to hold a convention wouldn’t come until 2037.

Every 20 years, New Yorkers get to decide whether they want to hold a convention to rewrite their state’s constitution.

That chance comes again on Tuesday in the form of Proposal 1, which will ask voters if they want a convention to revise and amend the constitution. If the measure passes, it would be the first such state convention anywhere in the US since 1992, according to The New York Times, and it could fundamentally reshape the future of New York.

A constitutional convention is a rare but powerful recourse for states hoping to end partisan gridlock and blow up the status quo. In the case of New York, that’s exactly what many convention supporters want to do.

“We have many good things in our constitution, but the fact is we have not updated it since 1938,” Bill Samuels, a leading support of Proposal 1, said on NY 1’s Inside City Hall last month.

“Things like term limits, which voters want, will never get done without a constitutional convention. New York has no right to clean air and fresh water. There are many exciting things that we can do to improve our state.”

“It is really the status quo people that are totally happy with Albany. This is a chance of a lifetime,” Samuels added.

New York’s constitution is roughly 50,000 words, making it about seven times longer than the US Constitution.

Polls show voters leaning against it

A Siena College poll in October found that ‘Yes’ voters were leading by a 44% to 39% margin. A more recent poll from the college released earlier this month found ‘No’ voters gaining momentum and overwhelmingly ahead by more than 30 points.

Opponents of a constitutional convention say it would be unnecessarily expensive and open up the door to special interests and powerful lobbying groups to have their way in rolling back worker protections and the right to free public education.

“Once delegates get to work, they can make up whatever convention rules they want,” said Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “There is no limit to the changes delegates can propose, no guide for how they submit them to the voters, and no requirement for transparency or public oversight.”

Supporters generally believe the political system is broken and that it would be impossible to effect change in Albany without taking power away from the few political insiders who currently control it. A convention, they say, is the only way to return the power to the people. They also argue it would bring about ethics reform and combat rampant corruption.

What happens if New Yorkers vote ‘yes’

If Proposal 1 passes, New Yorkers would elect three delegates from each state Senate district and 15 at-large statewide delegates, amounting to 204 total delegates, in November 2018.

Those delegates would represent their constituencies at a convention, where they would be able to propose constitutional amendments, in April 2019. New Yorkers would then vote on any proposed amendments.

New York’s last constitutional convention was in 1967, when Democrats held a majority in the state legislature and asked voters to grant them the right to hold one. Voters rejected all of the proposed amendments, which included changes to taxation and education and repealing prohibitions on government aid to religious schools, The New York Times reported.