NY Daily News, Errol Louis
July 18, 2017
I plan to vote yes on this fall’s referendum question about whether New York should hold an official constitutional convention to amend some badly outdated parts of the state Constitution. I hope you’ll do the same.
But whether or not the measure carries, reform-minded New Yorkers should create a “people’s convention” process. The goal would be a short list of measures to boost voter participation, corral corruption and attract new candidates to public service.
New York badly needs to amend its bloated Constitution, which runs seven times longer than the federal Constitution and more than twice the average length of every other state Constitution.
It includes anachronisms like a requirement that state judges retire at age 70, regardless of the judge’s ability, alertness or desire to serve, a waste of valuable talent in the modern age. And a 19th century provision banning gambling in New York remains on the books despite a proliferation of bingo parlors, racetracks, casinos and a lottery run by the state itself.
Even worse, according to the book “New York’s Broken Constitution,” our state’s governing document makes a mockery of home rule by stripping cities and counties of power to levy taxes or borrow money for needed projects. Even unquestionably local matters like deployment of traffic cameras are decreed matters of state control.
That is why New York City can’t toll local bridges, place an anti-pollution tax on plastic bags, deploy more speed cameras or issue residential parking permits. All those matters require approval from Albany.
Those already-bad problems turn toxic when we apply the confusing tangle of constitutional rules that make it difficult for New Yorkers to register and vote for candidates of their choice.
A provision dating to 1894 requires local election boards to be governed by equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. That officially places voting procedures under the power of party bosses, who have duly devised complicated rules that place extra burdens on smaller rivals like the Conservative and Green parties.
Having the parties control New York’s election boards is also a slap in the face to the 3 million New Yorkers — 27% of all registered voters — who choose not to belong to any political party. State election law, for example, requires voters to register in a party weeks in advance if they wish to vote in a primary. To change parties, you have to make the switch months in advance, before the prior year’s November election.
To cast an absentee ballot, a voter must apply in advance and prove that he or she will be absent or incapacitated on Election Day.
We make it harder to register, vote or switch parties than nearly every other state. Small wonder that New York’s voter turnout rate of 57% was the 44th worst in the nation in last year’s presidential contest — even with two New Yorkers on the ballot! That dismal outing was a slight improvement from 2014, when we ranked 49th.
The problems continue after elections. Our state Constitution contains no provision for voters to recall corrupt, ineffective or incapacitated legislators, and term limits aren’t mentioned.
Some reformers also think we could make a dent in Albany’s endemic corruption by placing caps on political donations and barring legislators from receiving outside income.
Even without an official state convention, the state Legislature can pass laws that amend many bad provisions of the Constitution. But with so much change needed, there’s a risk that reformers, attempting to cure a dozen problems, will scatter their efforts and end up fixing nothing.
That’s where a people’s convention comes in.
New York’s bar associations, along with newspaper editorial boards and reform advocates like Citizens Union, Citizen Action, Common Cause, NYPIRG and the coalition Fair Elections for New York, should commit to a condensed period of private discussion, public debate and careful polling. The reformers behind the website nyconstitution.org have already made a great start in this direction.
The goal would be to generate a short set of limited reforms, easily understood and broadly supported by the public, that candidates for convention delegate would be expected to run for or against in 2018.
A modest start would be provisions to establish same-day registration, nonpartisan control of local election boards, a week of early voting and absentee voting with no excuses required. Those four measures would put New York on a road to change we should have started on long ago.
Louis is political anchor of NY1 News.