It’s not on the radar of the average Rhode Islander yet but in 2014, as voters decide upon a new governor, we will also be deciding on whether or not to hold a Constitutional Convention. Every ten years voters get to decide whether or not to hold the Con-Con, and the last two times the measure was placed on the ballot (1994 and 2004) it failed. This time many groups on the right and the left of the political spectrum are gearing up to push hard on this issue.
The push seems to be born out of frustration with the way the General Assembly works (or doesn’t). One recent example of the General Assembly being out of touch with the wishes of Rhode Island voters is the legislative body’s recent inaction on eliminating the master lever. At State House hearings no one testified in favor of keeping the master lever and public support for removal was robust, yet the General Assembly failed to act. A case can be made that some members of the General Assembly should be held accountable for this failure.
Some are suggesting that the Con-Con will be a place to address this failure. Elected convention delegates could decide to put the decision on eliminating the master lever directly to the voters. The goal of eliminating the master lever might be accomplished but what about the goal of holding the General Assembly accountable? The General Assembly might start to feel even more able to punt on certain issues, because the Con-Con is not the process by which legislators are held accountable
If a Con-Con is approved in the 2014 election, then Rhode Island voters will have a chance to go back to the polls in 2015 and elect delegates to represent their views. Being a delegate is a one-time position that will begin and end with the convention. The delegates will consider and advance several changes to the Rhode Island State Constitution which will then be voted on by the public in 2016.
This is the wrong way to effect change. Right now, the General Assembly can be held accountable by voters: If you don’t like the way they are behaving, you can remove them from office by voting for their opponents in the next election. The Con-Con delegates, on the other hand, have no such accountability. Delegates, unconcerned with being re-elected, can suffer no penalty for failing voters. Delegate candidates could conceivably run as moderates and then work to effect radical changes once elected.
The most powerful penalty we can assign our elected officials, being tossed out of office by voters in a fair election, does not apply to Con-Con delegates. The job of a Con-Con delegate is to alter, perhaps fundamentally, the Constitution. Under Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that effectively ruled that dollars are the equivalent of speech, an unlimited amount of money could flood Rhode Island from out-of-state special interest groups. Think ALEC on steroids. Con-Con delegates will be barraged by special interests supplied with bottomless wealth, perhaps seriously damaging the process.
If it is worth millions to rewrite our laws, how much is rewriting the Constitution going to be worth?
Civil rights could be severely impacted by a Con-Con. There is nothing to stop the delegates from putting measures on the ballot that might reverse the recent, hard-won marriage equality law, for instance. Polarizing issues are especially vulnerable: guns, reproductive justice, immigration, environmental and economic issues are all primed to be hijacked by special interests. Even if voters ultimately vote against the worst ideas the Con-Con advances, it will come at the staggering costs advertising for such elections has reached in recent years. Rhode Island will become a political battleground on a plethora of issues, and citizens will be barraged by advertising and advocates run ragged fighting for and against the proposed changes to the Constitution.
Our state legislature is based on the ideals of representational democracy. Our General Assembly, despite its many problems is the way in which we as citizens engage with important policy issues. The Con-Con is an attempt to perform an end run around the process, and like any high risk play, the end result may be amazing, but it will most likely end in a disaster of wasted money and effort.