Hunter and McCartney: Voting against the convention

When those of us who vote here in Connecticut go to the polls in two weeks, we won’t be able to decide the presidential election. Our Congressional race isn’t competitive. Even our future state representative seems to be cruising easily to victory.

But our votes will make a huge difference on one important question facing our state: Should Connecticut hold a constitutional convention to amend or revise its Constitution?

By law, this ballot question pops up about every twenty years, and at first glance, a convention sounds mightily attractive. After all, as those of us who have taken Con Law can attest, our country has a soft spot for deliberative democracy. What could be better than gathering the whole state together and talking about the changes we want to see?

Only one problem: That isn’t how a convention would work at all. Rather than an open gathering of citizens, the convention would be an insider’s game. The delegates would be chosen through an undefined process by the Legislature, meaning that delegates are more likely to be lobbyists and political insiders than ordinary citizens. Even worse, the convention would get to make its own rules about how it would function, including what issues it would take up and whether votes and deliberations would be public.

The proposals coming out of the convention would then be put on future ballots, but the rules governing that process are also undefined. For example, the proposed amendments could be presented as a package of reforms, with three or four common-sense changes along with one or two controversial ones. This could create a difficult dilemma for voters, potentially allowing unpopular initiatives to sneak in alongside more desirable proposals.

No wonder, then, that the biggest proponents of this convention are special interests and ideological extremists who have a hard time gaining popular support for their views. The campaign to vote yes on the convention is dominated by anti-choice and anti-gay groups such as the Family Institute of Connecticut.

A yes vote would open our rights to attack. Just weeks ago, a state Supreme Court ruling made Connecticut the third state in the country to allow gay marriage. This hard-fought victory would be jeopardized by a “yes” vote in November: Some proponents of the convention hope to use it to overturn the decision. We believe that marriage equality in Connecticut is a major step forward and should be allowed to stand.

Because there is so little public accountability for what happens at the convention, it can be a field day for powerful lobbyists. In other states, big businesses like health insurance companies and tobacco companies have used the convention process to get special tax breaks, overturn environmental laws and take away workers’ rights and benefits. Things that would never fly in the Legislature can get undue attention in a convention, when the doors are closed and the hand-picked delegates are running the show.

Even if the Democratic-controlled Legislature managed to shut these special interests out of the convention, the process would still amount to a tremendous waste of time and energy. The agenda for the next legislative session includes such pressing issues as energy prices, comprehensive sex education and universal health care; we can’t afford to let our lawmakers spend the whole session haggling over delegates and parliamentary procedure. Even if no damage were done, a constitutional convention would distract from the real problems facing our state.

For those of us enticed by the idea of progressive amendments to the Constitution, it is important to recognize that a no vote does not mean the Connecticut Constitution can never be altered. Our elected legislators can always introduce referenda to be voted on without holding a taxpayer-funded convention, strengthening and protecting our rights without risking them all in the process. In fact, the Constitution has been amended this way 30 times since 1974. A convention is in no way necessary to make major changes.

These are only a few of the reasons that the campaign to vote “no” is endorsed by a variety of organizations, including Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, the ACLU of Connecticut and the Connecticut AFL-CIO, and many individual voters from across the state, including New Haven’s own mayor, John DeStefano Jr., and Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal LAW ‘73 (A full list can be found at www.ctvoteno.org). All of these groups and individuals share our concern that the convention is far too open to abuse and a distraction from the important business of the state.

Jessica Hunter and Abby McCartney are juniors in Branford College.

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