New Yorkers on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to hold a convention to make changes to the state’s constitution.
New Yorkers were presented with the referendum question “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same,” which is presented to the electorate once every 20 years. The last time voters approved having a constitutional convention was in 1967, but the ballot measures have been rejected on each occasion since then.
Nearly 78 percent, or 2.71 million voters, voted no on the ballot measure, according to data complied with the state’s Board of Elections. Nearly 16 percent, or almost 548,000 voters, voted in favor of holding a convention, with 15,133 of 15,502 election districts reporting as of Wednesday morning.
Had the referendum been approved, New Yorkers would have elected delegates in 2018 to the convention, which would have met the following year. At the convention, delegates would have gathered to propose amendments to the state constitution for voter ratification. Then in November 2019, voters would get the opportunity to vote on each proposed amendment.
In a statement Tuesday night, New Yorkers Against Corruption, a campaign composed of labor unions, business organizations, progressive and conservative groups, lauded the vote.
“Our coalition galvanized voters across a broad ideological spectrum to rise up and oppose a corrupt process that would enrich Albany’s political class while leaving the rest of us behind. Voters ultimately agreed that the con-con was just a con—a costly process full of risks and unknowns. Today was a win for our coalition but, more importantly, a win for all New Yorkers,” the emailed statement from the group said.
Adriene Holder, the attorney-in-charge of the civil practice of the Legal Aid Society, which had opposed the proposal, said in an email that the organization was “relieved” that New Yorkers voted down holding a convention.
“We are relieved for our clients and other low-income New Yorkers that the vital protections they rely upon will not be jeopardized by a constitutional convention,” Holder said. “While we share a desire for robust reform, a constitutional convention has always been a wrongheaded and ill-advised way to achieve those goals.”
Bill Samuels, a longtime Democratic political activist and founder of NY People’s Convention, said the defeat of the constitutional convention is a “triumph for all of the enemies of reform in Albany: Andrew Cuomo, the political bosses in the State Legislature, and the lobbyists and special interests who thrive in New York’s pay-for-play culture of corruption.”
“The constitutional convention movement was always about fundamentally reforming our broken system and transforming the state’s government from an embarrassment into a proud model for the rest of the nation,” Samuels added.
A review of campaign contributions found that New Yorkers Against Corruption raised $3.16 million since July, disclosures with the state’s Board of Elections reviewed by the New York Law Journal show. The organization reported $1.93 million in expenses, which include television ads and campaign literature.
Meanwhile, a campaign apparatus in favor of holding a convention only raised a fraction of what the opposition got in contributions. The Committee for a Constitutional Convention received $110,300 in contributions and reported $88,700 in expenses, according to disclosures. A separate organization in favor of holding a convention, NY People’s Convention, raised $436,700 in contributions and spent $406,000 since July.
The prospect of holding a constitutional convention made for interesting bedfellows in New York, where opposing interests found commonality against the proposal. The state’s widely influential labor unions banded together with environmentalists, good government groups, liberals and conservatives to form a campaign against holding a constitutional convention.
Convention opponents argued that opening up the state constitution for revisions and change could have been influenced by outside “dark money” and by similar donors that aided in the election of President Donald Trump. Opponents also argued that several provisions already existing in the state constitution, such as collective bargaining, could have been threatened, if not entirely undone.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo—whose late father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, had been a strong proponent for holding a constitutional convention—also came out against holding one, arguing that the delegate selection process “does not offer enough protections to prevent the status quo and special interests from governing.”
The state’s Supreme Court justices also opposed a constitutional convention, claiming that not only was it “unnecessary,” but it would also be “overly costly, and could result in the reversion, elimination or diminution of many current constitutional rights and safeguards.” The New York State Magistrates Association, which represents the town and village justices throughout the state, also voted to oppose the convention, arguing that delegates “could impose a fantastically expensive district court system at far greater annual cost to the taxpayers than our justice courts are now, without the 24-hour availability for which we are renowned.”
Meanwhile, the State Bar Association endorsed holding a constitutional convention to fix a “confusing and inefficient” court system. Proponents had their own campaign apparatus, the Committee for a Constitutional Convention. The campaign was managed by Evan Davis, a senior counsel at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and the former counsel to Gov. Mario Cuomo.
A Siena College poll released last Wednesday had indicated likely voters opposed a convention 57 percent to 25 percent.