The group Citizens for Responsible Government has led the “no” campaign against the Nov. 4 referendum question on convening a Constitutional Convention. It claims that “our concern about a Constitutional Convention is that it opens the rulebook of our democracy to wealthy outside special interests.” We have analyzed this claim for the three elections associated with a Constitutional Convention, and have found it to be baseless:

•The referendum on convening a convention: When polls indicate a “no” campaign could lose (as in Rhode Island this year), “no” expenditures have dwarfed “yes” expenditures.

For example, in Connecticut in 2008, 98 percent of the total money was against ($17,597 for; $846,669 against), and in Illinois, 92 percent ($147,765 for; $1.7 million against). In both states, outside money played a small role in the no campaigns; specifically, the national teachers union contributed 21 percent of the total opposition expenditures, with its state affiliates more than matching it. In contrast, no national organizations or out-of-state individuals contributed to the yes campaigns. In Rhode Island in 2004, both the yes and “no” campaigns appeared to rely exclusively on local money.

•The delegate election: Outside money tends to play a large role in candidate elections, especially for members of Congress. But they have not played a similarly large role in convention delegate elections.

During Rhode Island’s last Constitutional Convention, in 1986, 558 delegates ran for 100 seats, with an average expenditure by winning candidates of $282 ($612 in current dollars). We found no evidence that outside money from organized interests (as opposed to, say, friends and family) played a significant role. A good reason for this may be that outside money tends to go to incumbent legislators with senior legislative positions who are expected to hold power for more than a few months. By their nature, convention delegates lack such appeal.

•The ratifying referendum: A Constitutional Convention is an advisory body that proposes reforms to the sovereign (the people) for ratification. In 1986, Rhode Island’s Constitutional Convention submitted 14 proposals for ratification. Eight passed; six were rejected. The two major convention proposals passed: the rewrite of the Constitution (to eliminate embarrassing, obsolete language) and ethics reform (to reduce political corruption). We found no evidence that these two proposals and the other six that passed were the subject of mass media advertising campaigns.

By far the most contentious proposal was Question 14, which proposed reducing a woman’s right to choose. Despite an organized antiabortion campaign, the referendum was defeated by a margin of 2 to 1.

Campaign finance data weren’t available in 1986, but good data are available from Rhode Island and other states for recent years. One relevant finding is that a small percentage of referendums receive the lion’s share of the money. For example, in 2010, the United States had 184 ballot referendums, only 48.9 percent of which received any funding.

Another finding is that the referendums that receive the most funding aren’t of the good-government type. For example, Rhode Island had 22 referendums between 2006 and 2012. On two gambling referendums (only 9 percent of the referendums), $27.9 million was spent, which amounted to 91 cents of every dollar spent. In 2012, the United States had 186 referendums. Two categories of referendum issues (gambling and labor unions) involved only 7 percent of total referendums but generated 41 cents of every dollar spent.

If good-government issues such as legislative redistricting, ethics, transparency, term limits, judicial selection, or veto restrictions were on the ballot, it is unlikely they would receive significant outside funding.

Significant outside money is likelier on issues directly affecting organized economic interests or high-profile social issues, which could be part of a convention’s agenda. Even here, however, the normative significance of such contributions is unclear. For example, the vote no coalition includes members whose parent organizations are among the largest outside contributors in U.S. politics.

As for outside money available to support bans on either a woman’s right to choose or same-sex marriage, that’s unlikely because outside money is smart money. It would want a return on its investment and those would be losing propositions here in Rhode Island.

For example, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England (whose parent organization is one of the largest outside contributors on social issues) summarized a public opinion survey it conducted in June 2014 as follows: “Rhode Island is pro-choice by huge margins: those who believe abortion should be generally available outnumber those who believe abortion should be illegal 8 to 1.”

The unique constitutional function of the periodic constitutional convention is to propose good government reforms when the legislature is the problem and therefore wouldn’t propose them. In fulfilling that limited function, evidence from Rhode Island and other states indicates that “the rulebook of democracy” wouldn’t be controlled by “wealthy outside special interests” — except possibly to defeat this unique opportunity for good-government reform.

–J.H. Snider and Beverly Clay edit

Source: Snider, J.H. and Beverly Clay, Constitutional Convention and the out-of-state-money bogeyman, Providence Journal, October 24, 2014.