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July 3rd, 2010

Call the Convention

By Patti Brown

When Iowa voters go to the polls this November, they will have the option of voting yes or no on convening a state constitutional convention. The question has appeared automatically on the ballot during General Elections every 10 years since 1970, and every time over the past 40 years Iowa voters soundly defeated the measure.

Many voters may reject a state Constitutional Convention because they lack sufficient information about its purpose. Rather than to vote for something they may not understand, voters may cast a no vote, or choose to not vote on the issue at all. By the time voters get down ballot, some may simply have ballot fatigue, or not care about a convention. Some voters may even fear the process.

Perhaps this is the year, however, that Iowans should seriously consider if our nineteenth-century state constitution —written in 1857 four years before the Civil War— should be looked at with twenty-first century eyes. Does our current Iowa State Constitution do what we need it to do? Have the 46 amendments made by the Iowa Legislature on 26 separate occasions created a patchwork of laws instead of a cohesive modern document?

Much like a state party convention, a constitutional convention is a deliberative process where delegates gather to work through issues and come up with a final product. Delegates to a constitutional convention are charged with the task revising or amending the document provides a fundamental blueprint for how state government is to operate. The fruits of their effort are then put before Iowa voters before becoming law.

Iowa is not the only state looking at a constitutional convention this year. Voters will also have the opportunity to vote to call a state constitutional convention this November in Michigan where the question appears on the ballot every 16 years. Energize Michigan, a pro-convention group, has launched a voter education awareness campaign to help inform Michigan voters about the process. Supporters there hope the process can lead to savings by streamlining government, consolidating school districts, addressing tax and state spending problems, as well as address gun rights, same-sex marriage and term limits for lawmakers

Maryland voters also have an automatic ballot referendum in November asking if the state should call a constitutional convention. Since the question appears on the ballot every 20 years, voters have a once in a generation opportunity to call for changes to their state constitution. The organization is working to educate voters about the convention process and to encourage them to vote yes. One of the issues Maryland supporters are concerned about is redistricting due to the decennial U.S. Census. Those supporting a constitutional convention want to circumvent partisan and pro-incumbent gerrymandering. A constitutional convention could set forth a bi-partisan redistricting commission for voters to approve.

According to a poll released this month by Siena Research Institute voters in New York are favoring a state constitutional convention by a margin of 56-26 percent. Pennsylvania voters have been encouraging their legislature to allow a constitutional convention and both 2010 gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Dan Onorato and Republican Tom Corbett support a “limited” con-con that would allow delegates to address pre-approved issues. A state senate panel in Louisiana rejected legislation this month that would allow a commission to study the feasibility of holding a state constitutional convention. An effort is underway in California to collect enough signatures to place a constitutional convention initiative on the ballot next year. The initiative is supported by Meg Whitman, Republican gubernatorial nominee.

According to the Rutgers-Camden Center for State Constitutional Studies, successful state constitutional reform requires that political, technical, and substantive problems associated with constitutional change be anticipated and addressed.

Political problems that hinder state constitutional reform include voter apathy, opposition from those who benefit from existing constitutional provisions, and difficulty in organizing support for positive constitutional reform. Technical and substantive issues, such as drafting, can result in a failure to achieve the desired end results. One of the roles of convention delegates is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the existing constitution regarding citizen rights, the structure and branches of the state government and the state’s relationship to local government. Revisions or amendments must embody good public policy without creating new problems, and of course the devil is in the details.

Critics of a state constitutional convention can quickly defeat the effort with scare-tactics about opening Pandora’s Box leaving voters fearful of the process. However, the constitutional convention is the best venue to put forward democratic reforms when elected officials are either tone deaf to the electorate, or have conflicts of interest with their constituents over matters such as term limits or redistricting

Between now and November, Iowa voters need to have a healthy open-dialogue about the pros and cons of a con-con. The opportunity will not present itself again for 10 more years.

Maybe 2010 is the year Iowa voters should call the convention.

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About the Author

Polly Twocents
Polly Twocents is the pseudonym for the political commentary of Patti Brown, a partner in the Iowa Policy Institute, a research and analysis firm specializing in public policy issues. Patti is an Iowa mother of five who has a masters degree in journalism with a minor in political science from Iowa State University and an masters in social work from the University of Iowa. Patti worked for many years as a social worker in hospital, hospice and mental health settings. In addition she has also been a staff writer and columnist for The Catholic Mirror and a writer for The Des Moines Register. She is unabashedly and consistently pro-life and pro-family. As a bleeding heart conservative, Patti believes in a limited, representative government, personal responsibility, individual opportunity, and free enterprise.

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