This election day, New Yorkers will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to repair the very broken democracy in Albany, by voting “yes” for a New York State constitutional convention. Massive opposition to the convention, however, is being waged by unions, politicians, and interest groups from both the left and right, who fear that a convention may be captured by billionaires who will seek to eliminate current constitutional protections for workers, for the environment, and for the needy. When voters consider these arguments, they will be well advised at the same time to consider the even greater risks of voting “no.” The truth is that our democracy will almost certainly continue to fall into dysfunction, corruption, and disrespect if we fail to act now and we fail to vote yes and bring term limits to the table.
If a convention fails, for example, New Yorkers will almost assuredly continue to return the “same old crowd” of legislators to Albany year after year. Aided by the advantages of gerrymandering, name recognition, and money, etc., etc., incumbents are routinely re-elected to the legislature over 98% of the time. In 2016, over 25% of legislators faced no opposition, ever, in either a primary or general election. If voters go around the legislature through a constitutional convention, in contrast, one first order of business would be to impose term limits on all elected officials, including members of the legislature. Particularly if combined with reform of campaign financing, the state government will be fundamentally opened up to new blood, new ideas, and to a process which is responsive to the needs of the people of the state.
Both experiences in New York localities and responses to polls show that term limits are supported by overwhelming majorities of New York voters. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that politicians will never impose such limits upon themselves. We need a constitutional convention.
Without a convention, we can further expect that money in politics will continue to grow to an overwhelming influence. It already costs several hundreds of thousands of dollars to run for some legislative positions, while over $53 million was spent on the most recent race for Governor. Contributions through limited liability companies allow the rich to essentially contribute as much as they want to individual candidates directly, without pretending to limit themselves to so-called “independent” expenditures which are permitted by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. The public’s accurate perception that government responds to the wealthy, rather than to the people, is thus confirmed over and over again.
Public financing of elections on a matching-funds mode can’t stop billionaires from trying to influence elections, but it can level the playing field sufficiently such that independent and grassroots candidates have a fighting chance. But our legislature has utterly failed to act. It is time for the people – through separately elected delegates to a constitutional convention – to step in.
Multiple examples of drastically needed reforms which our legislature has failed to address – including opening the process to elect judges, allowing for democratic participation through early voting, imposing ethical standards on government, and increasing the authority of local government – similarly support the case for a constitutional convention.
Voting “no” to a convention will send a message to future generations that we were too afraid to act to preserve democracy not only for ourselves but for our children. That’s not a result that any New Yorker should accept.