Nutman: Let the people amend

Question 1 on the Connecticut ballot next week — “Shall there be a Constitutional Convention to amend or revise the Constitution of the State?” — has received a lot of attention in recent weeks. And rightfully so. The ballot measure appears automatically every 20 years, but a convention this year threatens to reverse the recent landmark Connecticut Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage. While voting “no” on this question is important, voting “yes” on the next question is at least as important.

Question 2 asks voters to change the state constitution by ratifying House Resolution 21, which proposes to expand the electorate for primary elections to include 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the time the regular election occurs. The amendment passed in the State House of Representatives by a vote of 135-12 and unanimously in the State Senate, indicating overwhelming bipartisan support for the measure.

Those who support this provision do so because they believe that when young citizens have access to the political process earlier, they are more engaged and more likely to participate in elections throughout their lifetimes. And they’re right. A 2006 study by James Fowler, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, found that voting is habitual. In other words, the best predictor of voter turnout in individuals is whether they have voted in the previous election.

Thus, if Connecticut can entice young voters to participate, they may very well create voters for life.

While such a provision is new in Connecticut, it is hardly a novel idea. In fact, it mirrors the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18, supported by the argument that if 17-year-olds can pre-register for the draft or enter the military, why shouldn’t they be allowed to vote?

Legal theory aside, if this ballot measure passes, Connecticut will join a group of 11 other states that passed similar provisions with an eye towards encouraging voter participation. They’ve succeeded. According to the Connecticut Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, all 11 have reported an increase in voter turnout (on average three to five percent) since passing the respective laws.

This election cycle has already seen a dramatic increase in electoral participation, with young citizens making up a significant portion of new voting bloc. Voters in Connecticut are following the national trend. The Democratic presidential primary saw a record 53 percent turnout, and nearly a quarter of a million new voters have registered since the beginning of the year, more than a third of whom are between 18 and 29.

Bysiewicz expects a voter turnout around 90 percent on Nov. 4, which would be the highest turnout since the 1960 election, when American voting turnout hit its peak. Voting yes next Tuesday will capitalize on the momentum spurred by a competitive primary and the Obama and McCain campaigns. Doing so will help ensure that young voter turnout lasts beyond this election.

Question 2, however, has significance beyond its potential to expand the electorate. Its mere presence on the ballot and the process by which it got there show why a state constitutional convention is unnecessary — essentially, why the answer to Question 1 should be no.

Some groups, like the Connecticut Constitution Convention Campaign, argue a convention is more democratic than the bicameral presentment process because proposals originate from delegates to the convention rather than from state legislators. They claim the convention would be a means for the state to enact wide-sweeping reform, such as introducing an initiative referenda process to return power to the electorate. But this argument is a fallacy in Connecticut. Legislators might not be delegates to the convention, but they appoint them. If anything, these delegates are less accountable to the electorate because they won’t be up for reelection.

Question 2 shows, as do the other 30 amendments to the state constitution through the bicameral process since 1974, that a convention is unnecessary. After all, there’s no reason the initiative referenda process could not be implemented through the traditional method.

A true democracy is one in which people actively participate. Amending the constitution by voting “yes” on Question 2 spurs such activity and shows that a participatory democracy does not require a convention.

Sarah Nutman is a sophomore in Trumbull College.

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