If You Want Diverse Representation, Vote for a Constitutional Convention

Published by Michael Frank on

The last time New York held a constitutional convention abortion was illegal.

That was 1967. And despite the passage of 50 years the now legal practice is still under threat. The most recent action by the Trump Administration will, ironically, make it more common for women to need abortions (by making it harder to obtain birth control).

What’s changed since 1967, despite Trump’s actions, is that by an increasing majority Americans would like abortion to remain safe and legal.

This is even more the case in New York State. A recent Quinnipiac poll  found that New Yorkers favor a state constitutional amendment to legalize abortion by a margin of 68-27 percent.

Slam dunk, right? NYS Legislature should take this up immediately.

This right isn’t enshrined in New York’s constitution, because there has been no move to amend the sprawling document to this end. The amendment process requires two consecutively elected legislatures to vote in favor, and then the change must be voted on in a general election. While the majority of statewide constituents favor such an amendment, the NYS Senate is far more conservative than the state’s voters, making sure that abortion rights will not soon be written into the constitution.

But there’s another pathway to protect a woman’s right to choose, as well as the rights that every person of every race and religion is protected, and that LGBTQ rights are protected, even as federal efforts are actively underway to undermine them both by employers and in the military.

It’s called a constitutional convention and New Yorkers get the right to vote in favor of holding one every 20 years.

Yet we’ve rejected that right for the longest period in the state’s history — meaning we’ve rejected the right to enshrine our own values in the document that governs us.

And so we’re currently ruled by a document that is in many ways ancient, that in fact barely protects the rights of women and minorities necessary in contemporary America.

No wonder: During the constitutional convention of 1967, which ultimately failed to significantly fix so many old laws, women made up a slight majority of the populace in the state, similar to today. But at the convention a mere six percent of delegates were women, and although it was the “most diverse” convention in the state’s history, that actually amounted to a mere 11 African Americans out of 186 delegates and only seven Latinos. More than half of the delegates were over the age of 50.

If you actually want change a document that’s barely been amended since the 1930s, the founder of The Benjamin Center, Dr. Gerald Benjamin says, you should strongly favor a constitutional convention, where delegates could actually look like the population of New York State — not like, say, the New York State Senate, which is far whiter, more male, and far older than the state’s populace.

A CONVENTION TO PROTECT ABORTION RIGHTS

One of the powers the convention would have, says Benjamin, is to enshrine the right to a legal abortion in the state constitution. The argument for such an amendment was recently put powerfully by the group Forward Majority in an open letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo. The letter makes it plain that using regular order in the legislature to protect a woman’s right to choose will fail, despite Cuomo’s promise to the people of the state to protect this right.

Benjamin says, “We should let New Yorkers of today, not the New York of our great-grandparents govern us,” and argues that we should embrace the opportunity a convention presents to protect rights most under threat on the federal level. He says fears on the left that citizens will lose more than they’ll gain are completely unfounded.

Why?

For one thing, because even millions in “dark money” will have a tough time gaining traction in an elected delegate body that will tilt far to the left of Albany’s legislative makeup as a whole. (More on why delegates will be more diverse, here.)

And Benjamin says, “Even if the Koch brothers come in, and there’s no evidence that this is happening, and they try to, say, erode reproductive rights, how do you get from such an effort by an outside group to having a majority of delegates voting in favor? And then don’t forget we all get a vote in the end.” Meaning that after the convention all New Yorkers get to favor or reject what the convention adopts. Benjamin says it’s illogical to think we’d vote to erode our own rights when there’s zero chance any such referendum would pass on a statewide level, with or without a convention.

A CONVENTION TO PROTECT LGBTQ RIGHTS

Precisely because reproductive and LGBTQ rights are being undermined at the federal level by the White House and the Justice Department, and risk being undermined in federal law as well, Richard Brodsky argued recently for the Rockefeller Institute that the constitutional convention presents a unique chance to protect the entire citizenry of the state. “We can no longer take for granted that our national government has the will or the resources to protect our rights of expression, equality before the law, personal privacy, reproductive rights, access to schools, a healthy environment, and more.”

Benjamin seconds Brodsky’s sentiment that the constitution of New York could, under amendment by the convention, include firmer outlines to better protect everyone’s rights, and he feels that issues of the day, such as the rights of undocumented and recent immigrants as well as a greater focus on religious minorities would come into play.

And he says that more broadly, movements like further codifying minimum wage rate hikes and other worker protections, especially those against discrimination, might well gain traction.

As for why Benjamin sees a general leftward tilt to a convention, it’s simple: The populace has shifted that direction.

True, upstate voters have shown less support for agendas like minimum wage and other progressive actions, but Benjamin says that the constitutional convention is about representing all voters. “There are fewer New Yorkers upstate as a proportion than in 1967. They may feel their interests would be undermined, but a constitutional convention is about democracy, and New York today has the most diverse population in the history of the state, so the people of today should write their own constitution.”

Part of an ongoing series on the issues surrounding the constitutional convention ballot question.


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