On the November ballot, referendum Question 3 will ask voters; “Shall there be a convention to amend or revise the constitution?” While most people following Ocean State politics are focused on who will be the next governor of our state, or the next mayor of our capital city, question three bears watching too. The process for putting the referendum on the ballot every ten years was the result of a 1973 constitutional convention ballot initiative.
The first time the voters were presented with the new question (in 1984) they authorized a convention. The result was a two-year process that placed 14 questions on the 1986 ballot, eight of which were ratified by the voters. In 1994 and 2004 the voters rejected the referendum and no conventions were held as a result. Our organization, Common Cause Rhode Island, opposed the last two referenda but in 2014 we are not taking a position. Quite frankly, there are too many compelling arguments for and against a convention this time. Just a cursory review shows both sides to have compelling arguments.
Supporters of a convention point to important constitutional changes that they assert are needed in our state as the impetus for their efforts. They also rightfully point out that many of these reforms that limit legislative power could be much more difficult to achieve through the typical process whereby the General Assembly puts proposed constitutional amendments it would like on the statewide ballot.
Opponents of a convention point to the many important changes that have been put on the ballot by the legislature; including Separation of Powers, downsizing the legislature, elimination of the much abused legislative pensions, merit selection of judges, etc. They argue that a convention will be a creature of the legislature given that the election of delegates is based on state legislative districts, and that in 1986 many of them had deep ties to members of the General Assembly.
Opponents of a convention express legitimate concerns about the possibility that such a gathering might put restrictions on important civil rights and liberties up to a popular referendum. They point to amendments from 1986 that would have put restrictions on abortion rights (which didn’t pass) and imposed restrictions on bail for certain drug offenses (which did pass).
Supporters point to the fact that the people must approve any changes to the Rhode Island constitution that are placed on the ballot by a convention, and that the voters overwhelmingly rejected new restrictions on abortions in 1986. They argue that the U.S. Constitution contains sufficient protections for civil rights and liberties, and that those cannot be abrogated by the a state constitution.
We encourage the voters of Rhode Island to look closely at the arguments made against a convention by Citizens for Responsible Government, and for having a convention by Renew RI. Both coalitions have already been spending considerable resources to make their respective point of view heard. No doubt the coming weeks will see even more arguments by both sides of this question.
Common Cause is engaging a different type of education, one that is not focused on persuading anyone about the merits or dangers of a convention. Rather we are trying to explore what a convention might look like by digging into the archives from the 1980s and other sources. Here are a few quick facts:
There were an extraordinary 558 candidates for the November 5, 1985 election of 100 delegates to the constitutional convention. That election resulted in only 96,538 eligible voters casting a ballot. The convention held 11 statewide public forums and received over 1000 comments. After that they held 111 substantive committee meetings and took testimony at 34 public committee hearings. The result was 322 resolutions introduced by the delegates and vetted through six substantive committees. Fifty-six of the resolutions were debated in 10 plenary sessions. The result was 26 resolutions that passed and were consolidated into the 14 ballot questions proposed in 1986.
There is much more to learn about the 1986 convention. The Common Cause website contains five hours of video from a March conference we hosted with Roger Williams University School of Law, the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, and the League of Women Voters or Rhode Island. Included are talks by Professors Alan Tarr and Robert Williams from the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers University, perhaps the two leading authorities on state constitutions. Other materials we have added include information about the campaign finance from the election of delegates.
While the candidates you vote for on November 4th may be in office for four or eight years, changes to our state’s constitution may last for generations. In the coming weeks we hope you take the time to become educated about Question 3 and make sure on Election Day to go down the ballot and make your voice heard on this issue, no matter where you stand.