This November, Rhode Islanders will vote on whether to convene a constitutional convention. Throughout most of American history, state constitutional conventions were a regular occurrence. But not one has been approved during the last 30 years, the longest stretch in U.S. history. Understanding why should help you decide how to vote.

Rhode Island’s own history regarding constitutional conventions is extraordinary. Of the original 13 U.S. states, it was one of only two that didn’t convene a constitutional convention to change its colonial charter. It was the only state to refuse to attend the federal constitutional convention in 1787, the last to ratify the Constitution, and the only one to attempt ratification via a popular referendum.

By the early 1840s, Rhode Island’s constitution, the last state constitution derived from a colonial charter, was highly undemocratic. It let a small rural elite control the legislature, and that elite refused to convene a constitutional convention to reallocate power. This led to one of the few incidents in Rhode Island history taught in introductory American history textbooks: the Dorr Rebellion. The Dorrites forced the government to adopt a new, more democratic constitution.

The Dorr Rebellion profoundly influenced other states, encouraging four states between 1846 and 1851 to adopt the periodic (also called the “self-executing”) constitutional convention referendum, whose goal was to make it possible for citizens to use the ballot box rather than violence to democratize their constitutions in the face of a recalcitrant legislature. Today, 14 states have such referendums, but Rhode Island would be the last of these to get one — in 1973.

In 1984, Rhode Island was also the last state to actually approve a constitutional convention — a convention that was widely reported as a great success.

The decline in convening state constitutional conventions as a way to fix dysfunctional state politics can largely be explained by the growth of incumbent entrenchment, big business and big labor.

As serving in state legislatures evolved during the last several hundred years from being a part-time, volunteer activity to a career, incumbent legislators came to see state constitutional conventions as a threat to their continuing entrenchment in office.

Joining forces with incumbent legislators were big business in the late 19th century and big labor, especially public employee unions, in the late 20th. These powerful special interest groups saw the unlimited constitutional convention as a threat to their power because, compared with the legislature, it’s a relatively transparent and accountable process. Over many months and much public deliberation, the public gets three votes: to convene a convention, to elect its members, and, most important, to ratify its proposals. In contrast, the legislative process allows special interests to insert provisions into must-pass bills at the last minute and secretly.

After big labor joined the coalition of incumbent legislators and big business strongly opposed to convening state constitutional conventions, the politics of approving a referendum became untenable. To win, this coalition has often adopted Machiavellian tactics, so expect the following:

The coalition may try to corrupt the delegate selection process as much as possible and then use that as an argument against voting yes for the convention. But remember: you not only get to vote for the delegates but can reject any reforms they propose.

The coalition may try to shift attention from the primary democratic function of a periodic state constitutional convention referendum — to address democratic reform issues such as legislative redistricting, transparency, term limits, campaign finance and ethics, where its interests may diverge from the public’s — to controversial social value issues, especially unpopular ones that are unlikely to pass but can be used to build opposition to a yes vote. If the press relies on its usual method for framing “objective” news reports — asking self-interested incumbents of both political parties what a debate is about — the coalition will gain a huge free PR advantage.

Finally, if polls show the yes vote could win, the coalition may launch a massive last-minute media campaign, vastly outspending the yes supporters. One strategy portrays a state constitutional convention as a special interest-dominated and corrupt lawmaking body with too much power — without noting the irony of who finances the campaign. Another hides behind citizen groups that may care little about constitutional conventions but benefit from allying with the powerful, including receiving millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity for their issues and organizations.

A state constitutional convention is no panacea for Rhode Island’s problems. But if the public is to vote one down, it should at least do so knowledgeably. The press and public during the coming debate should look beyond the spin. Rhode Island’s small size and intimate politics may make it uniquely positioned to do so, thus helping resuscitate a vital institution for reforming state government in the face of an entrenched, recalcitrant legislature.

–J.H. Snider maintains the website and is the president of Sage Snider is a graduate student in the Public Humanities Program at Brown University.


Source: Snider, J.H. and Sage Snider, R.I. needs a constitutional convention, Providence Journal, March 21, 2014.