Steve Ahlquist laid out the case against a Rhode Island Constitutional Convention recently. Early last month, Gary Sasse also suggested that a Convention was unnecessary if the General Assembly acted to create constitutional change itself (Sasse also made the case that constitutional amendments originating in the Assembly during the ’90s were more effective than those originating in the 1986 Convention).
Ahlquist’s arguments boil down to a few major points:
- The Convention delegates lack accountability, being elected for a single 2016 session
- The election process will vulnerable to influence by large, monied interests
- Civil rights are a particularly important arena vulnerable to the whims of the Convention
In terms of the first point, I should start out by adding I’ve heard the delegates will also be able to set their own rules, so how accountable they’ll be is entirely up to them. I personally find that a far more convincing argument than Ahlquist’s argument that the delegates are unaccountable because they’ll only serve for the duration of the Convention. The accountability of a legislator to their constituents isn’t solely found in the ballot box, it’s also in the willingness of constituents to exercise their right to lobby their legislator.
That transitions us nicely to the second point, that large monied interests are capable of influencing this election. That’s true, but no more than they are capable of influencing the election of the RI House of Representatives. Which is essentially what the Convention is; it’s a 75-member group elected from House districts. The difference is that the Convention is tasked solely with the creation of constitutional amendments that don’t need to pass the checks of a Senate or Governor. While such a group might be more appealing to dark and big money, it’s not a guarantee of getting their agenda passed. Indeed, such groups have had success in the General Assembly before, hiring former Speaker William Murphy as their lobbyist seems particularly effective.
More worrisome is where do you get 75 Rhode Islanders (probably more since not all will be uncontested) to be delegates? And that brings us to the third point. What progressives seem to fear is a repeat of 1986, when the Convention produced a cleverly-worded amendment to restrict abortion. Thanks to those who defeated it. One thing to say is that Rhode Island in 2013 is not Rhode Island in 1986. The state has moved considerably left in the last 27 years. Now that’s no guarantee, after all, as we moved left, we’ve also gone right with our economics. We also should rightly fear that the Convention would attempt to undo marriage equality. But these are fears that we should harbor if there’s a bad leadership change in the House as well.
All of the charges Ahlquist levels against the Convention are true of the General Assembly. And the Assembly is highly problematic in its relationship to regular Rhode Islanders right now, as I tried to demonstrate in my series on alternate election systems. I want to make this point when it comes to delegates: in Rhode Island the right-wing doesn’t win unless the left-wing stays home. The most important problem with the Convention is that delegates are elected in 2015; an off-off-year. Odd-numbered years result in low turnout with more conservative-minded voters.
I don’t think the right-wing is oblivious to this fact; otherwise I don’t believe they would be trumpeting the Convention as their Last Great Hope to finally be swept into power. The question progressives should ask themselves is whether they’re willing to do the work to ensure that the left turns out. That might mean focusing on the 2014 and 2015 sessions to pass voter-access legislation; such as introducing early voting, automatic registration, repealing or weakening the Voter ID law, and making Election Day a paid holiday. That might mean setting aside some part of 2014 for beginning to organize who their candidates for delegate will be and what they want proposed and to fight to 2016 for.
Ahlquist holds up as an example of the Assembly’s intransigence the “master lever” bill so favored by the right wing. The problems of Rhode Island government lies deeper than a single voting mechanism. It lies in the assumptions of Sasse, that meaningful constitutional change can’t come from the citizens of this state. It lies in what Ahlquist suggests as a fear: that radicals might make radical change. But this is what we need, radical change. The Convention doesn’t have the power to upend power relationships in this state, but it does get to determine how those power relationships are played out. Whether the monied get easy access to decision-makers, whether redundant systems stymie citizen voice, whether legislative games facilitate bill failure, etc.
The Convention offers the possibility to do things that the General Assembly would never dream of doing. This is what frightens many Rhode Islanders. The Convention doesn’t have to abide by established rules, it doesn’t have to play in deference to convention. At its very best, the Convention can offer revolutionary change to the people of Rhode Island, if they’re willing to take it. That’ll be a risk, and it could cost far more than it’s worth. Sometimes, you have to be Caesar, and roll the dice.