Constitutional Convention: False hope or direct democracy?
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.”
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.