For the first time in 20 years, a state constitutional convention may be on the docket. But if money is any indicator, the vote to hold it will likely fail.
The current state constitution, adopted in 1965, places the option of holding a constitutional convention before voters once every 20 years. Yet, the seemingly simple question — “Shall there be a constitutional convention to amend or revise the constitution of the state?” — has proven divisive.
Several state and national groups have rallied in opposition to the convention out of fear that special interests and radicals will control its agenda. Supporters said they would like the convention to amend the constitution to allow for voter-driven ballot initiatives on all sorts of issues, but opponents are worried about giving the final say to what they say is an easily influenced public.
The Constitution Convention Campaign, an umbrella organization of groups supporting the ballot measure, is leading the charge to rectify the ineffectiveness of the legislature, Vice Chairman John Woodcock III, a former Democratic state lawmaker from South Windsor, said. Woodcock said he would like to see the system reformed to allow for citizen-driven ballot initiatives.
“In our state 95 percent of incumbents win re-election, over one-third of races are uncontested and lobbyist influence has grown to $42 million annually,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “The legislature is too entrenched and is dominated by special interests.”
But opponents to the convention cite several concerns as reasons to vote against the measure.
“Convention delegates can propose anything, without limits,” said Peggy Shorey, Campaign Manager of CT Vote NO!, the leading opposition against the ballot measure. “Voters have no say in what is proposed at the convention,” she added. “[Delegates] will do what’s in their best interest, not the public interest.”
The CT Vote NO! coalition, whose members include the American Civil Liberties Union, AFL-CIO and Planned Parenthood, has combined lobbying groups, unions and organizations into a formidable opposition force. The group has out-raised those in the “Yes” camp by about 83 to 1, according to an analysis by The Hartford Courant.
“When you are being out-spent 83 to 1, reality sets in,” Woodcock said. “This whole campaign is about spreading our message to voters — we have only raised $12,000 and the other side has millions of dollars to use to blanket TV with ads. It will be an uphill battle for us.”
Woodcock criticized the Vote NO! campaign for resorting to what he called “scare tactics,” exemplified in their attempt to characterize all convention supporters as anti-gay marriage and anti-choice in abortion issues, as he put it.
“I am a Democrat, a progressive one at that, and I have a record to prove it,” he said. “But I think we, as citizens, should have the ability to change our laws without going through the broken legislature. This convention is issue-neutral and can be used to tackle issues such as a three-strikes law, eminent domain reform and a tax overhaul.”
State figures have taken sides on the issue as well: Gov. M. Jodi Rell has spoken out in support of the ballot initiative, while Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 has been outspoken in opposition to it.
Blumenthal told The New York Times earlier this month that criticism of the legislature should not be the only reason to call a constitutional convention since those same legislators appoint delegates.
Woodcock countered that when the current constitution was adopted in the 1960s, then-delegates were subject to voter approval in a special election.
“I think that precedent should be followed if the ballot measure passes,” he said.
The Family Institute of Connecticut, an anti-gay marriage group that is one of the major proponents of the convention, has said that voter referenda will allow citizens to overturn the recent state Supreme Court ruling to legalize gay marriage.
“If we get a ‘yes’ vote, that’s just step one,” Peter Wolfgang, the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, told The Courant after the decision was announced. “This is our best avenue.” (Wolfgang could not be reached for comment Monday.)
In light of the fundraising discrepancies, supporters of the constitutional convention measure are not optimistic about their chances Nov. 4.
In 1986, the only other time since the 1960s that the constitutional convention question was on the ballot, it failed in part due to the opposition of Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, among other organizations.