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Constitutional Convention: False hope or direct democracy?

by | Oct 22, 2008 11:18pm
() Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Election Policy, Town News

Christine Stuart photo

Ed Pilkington of Manchester walked into Hartford Public Library Wednesday night not knowing how he would answer November’s ballot question: “Shall there be a Constitutional Convention to amend or revise the Constitution of the State?”

After hearing more than an hour of debate between three panelists against a constitutional convention and two panelists in favor of it, Pilkington walked out of the library thinking he would be voting ‘Yes’ to the question in November.

However, Pilkington didn’t necessarily agree with the motives of constitutional convention proponents.

Proponents of the convention would like to see the constitution amended to include direct initiative or ballot referendum, which would give citizens a way in which to petition public policy issues directly onto a ballot.

Pilkington said he thinks it may be a healthy exercise for the state to open up the constitution every few decades and take a look at it. He said if the question passes he’ll be sure to let his legislators know that’s why he voted in favor of it.

Pilkington said after hearing Matthew Daly, Constitution Convention Campaign chairman, talk about the 1965 convention and how only two of the 259 proposals made it out of the convention, in addition to knowing that the legislature would appoint the delegates to the convention, “made me feel comfortable.”

Frank O’Gorman, of People of Faith, said all you have to do is look at ballot initiatives being proposed in other states, like Colorado where voters will decide this November if a fertilized egg should be given inalienable rights, to see how dangerous voting in favor of a constitutional convention would be. He said proponents of a constitutional convention and direct initiative “are abridging the principles of what makes a constitution, a constitution.”

Christine Stuart photo

John Woodcock, Constitution Convention Campaign vice chairman, said the ‘Yes’ campaign is issue neutral. He said thinking its about one issue or another is exactly what the ‘No’ people want and “we refuse.”

Woodcock, a former Democratic state legislator who is credited with authoring the state’s first Lemon Law, said some of the most important laws in this country were passed by direct initiative. He said 13 states gave women suffrage before the 19th Amendment, six states passed public campaign finance laws, eight have approved medical marijuana laws, and six states have used it to increase the minimum wage.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is not in favor of a convention, said “my main worry about the convention is that it raises false hopes.” He said he thinks the people in favor of the convention are picturing a town hall meeting where everyone will attend and have a vote.

“I think a constitutional convention is like an empty vessel and everybody pours into it their hopes,” Blumenthal said. “And I think those hopes would be dashed. I think the idea raises very false expectations. And I think nothing illustrates that point better than the unresponsiveness of the legislature being a reason for the constitutional convention, and then the emphasis on the leadership of the legislature being the ones to choose the delegates.”

As a former legislator, Woodcock said he knows the General Assembly would never amend the constitution itself. He said there’s “institutional hostility by the legislature to giving people the right to ballot petition.”

“It’s never gonna happen,” Woodcock said. “It has to happen now or 20 years from now.”

The constitution says voters must be asked the question about a convention every 20 years. The last convention the state held was in 1965.

Kim Knox, constitutional scholar and lawyer at Horton, Shields, and Knox, said the constitution is a stable continuous body of law, which is succinct and 10,000 words.

Knox said she thinks people need to differentiate between statutes, which “can bend with the wind,” and the constitution. She said amendments are a way the constitution has some flexibility, but the amendment process wasn’t intended to be easy.

Many in the audience Wednesday expressed frustration with unresponsive elected officials.

If people have issues with an unresponsive legislature then “you all have a say in that. Every election you have a say,” Knox said. “Do we need to take the risk of a convention?”

Blumenthal said the state constitution has been amended by the General Assembly 30 times since 1965.

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(7) Archived Comments

posted by: matt w | October 23, 2008  1:28am

Blumenthal said the state constitution has been amended by the General Assembly 30 times since 1965.

The 30 amendments.

Some substantial items in there—all of which had to pass a with majority support from CT voters.

posted by: matt w | October 23, 2008  1:44am

By the way, I was wondering if you could share where you got the information that a constitutional convention is being supported by a) many groups on the left in general and b) Representative Caruso in particular.

The former seems to be false, and the latter is DEFINITELY false.

So do you burn sources that lie to you, or do you protect them to maintain your access?

posted by: Evan Ravitz | October 23, 2008  10:35am

Ballot initiatives are the origin of most reforms, such as women’s suffrage (passed in 13 states before Congress went along), direct election of Senators (4 states), publicly financed elections (passed by initiative in 6 of 7 states with them), medical marijuana ( in 8 of 12 states) and increasing minimum wages (in all 6 states that tried in 2006). See http://Vote.org/initiatives for more examples and references. The media have seized on the problem initiatives. They generally kiss up to politicians.

Voters on initiatives need what legislators get: public hearings, expert testimony, amendments, reports, etc., but independent of the legislature, as all branches of government work independently. The best project for such deliberative process is the National Initiative for Democracy, led by former Sen. Mike Gravel: http://Vote.org. Also http://healthydemocracyoregon.org/ and http://cirwa.org

posted by: Doug | October 23, 2008  11:11am

Matt you seem to think you have information to the contrary… why not share it?

Otherwise, why not let’s see some polling data on the question. I’m sure there’ll be a poll on this available shortly.

I’ve read you comments on both stories and you seem to be ignoring responses. Are you a bot?

posted by: ctkeith | October 23, 2008  1:08pm

Doug,

Polling isn’t going to change the FACT Christine made a factual error in her reporting.

I suggest,

1) she admit,in print,her mitake.
2) we move on.

Chritine does excellent work but like every person she’s humam and makes mistakes.The old “dead tree” reporters rarely,if ever, admitted mistakes and if they did their retractions were usually well hidden in the many pages of their newspapers.

Christine could go a long way to showing that the “new media” she is championing is really as different as we’re all hoping it is.

posted by: christine | October 23, 2008  1:17pm

Okay everybody just needs to calm down. I admitted I made a mistake in the comment section by saying Rep. Chris Caruso supported the constitutional convention, when in fact he does not. I just got off the phone with him and will be publishing a story later today about exactly what his position is and how the misinformation may have gotten out there in the first place. So everybody needs to hold their horses, while I get to work.

posted by: Doug | October 23, 2008  1:34pm

Keith, I think she did that on the other post and said she’d look into another story. Would you like her to re-post that response here? I guess you’re talking about the difference between the word “groups” in her story and the idea that there are thousands of Democrats out there who like the idea of the convention. Clearly your agenda goes beyond that.

Simple anecdotal evidence tells me there are plenty of Democrats supporting the ConnCon. I’m sure many are reticent to say so to avoid offending friends in the gay community because of the appearance—albeit an inaccurate one in many cases I’m sure—of support for a ban on gay marriage.

Nevertheless, it’s a semantic argument at best and certainly not worth all the effort you and Matt have put into it. She’ll get around to it once she’s checked it out. She’s certainly not going to offer a blanket correction just because you and Matt W claim she’s wrong—your comments are there for everyone to see.