October 25, 2010

Constitutional convention unlikely to pass, experts say

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

It doesn’t look like Maryland voters will decide to convene another constitutional convention because of the lack of attention to the issue, but sentiment on state constitutions changes quickly, several experts on state constitutional conventions said Friday.

The experts spoke at the National Press Club in a forum about the challenges of state constitutional conventions sponsored by iSolon, an organization led by political scientist and Maryland Constitutional Convention advocate J.H. Snider.

Maryland, Iowa, Michigan and Montana will be asking their voters if they want to have another constitutional convention. The four states all have provisions in their state constitutions requiring that the people vote on a question about a new convention. Maryland voters see the question every 20 years.

In 1990, 470,000 Maryland voters (60%) opposed the convention, while 321,000 voted for it.

Snider said nobody has been talking much about the constitutional convention issue – though gubernatorial front-runners Bob Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley both said at a debate Thursday that it could be a positive thing. But no candidates or politically active groups are coming out for or against the issue, Snider said. And no polls have been taken on the question.

Assistant Attorney General Dan Friedman, counsel to the General Assembly and an expert on Maryland’s five constitutional conventions, questioned if anyone has raised any money to put into a campaign for or against the referendum. Wake Forest political science associate professor John Dinan said that campaign dollars are spent when people care about the issue.

Robert Williams, associate director of Rutgers University’s Center for State Constitutional Studies, remarked that Maryland has had a relatively good economy through the recession. That might make people less inclined to vote for the opportunity to make a wholesale change in the structure of government.

But G. Alan Tarr, director of the Rutgers state constitutional center, said people tend to have very shallow attachments to state constitutional issues. He cited Connecticut, where a 2008 ballot question asking voters if they wanted to call a constitutional convention was leading in opinion polls five days before the election. A last-minute media campaign against the convention led it to fail, with 59% of people voting against it.

“These are low information elections, meaning that things can change fast with an infusion of new information,” Tarr said.

Fourteen states ask their voters periodically if they want to have another constitutional convention. This follows Thomas Jefferson’s idea of having citizens revisit their system of governance once in a generation, but it has not been successful. Only 25 of the nation’s 233 state constitutional conventions have ever been called as a result of a vote for them, Dinan said. Thirteen of those were in New Hampshire, where the state constitution had no provision for amendments until the 1960s. Maryland has had five constitutional conventions, and none of them were called as the result of a referendum.

In fact, there have been no constitutional conventions in the 50 states for almost 30 years. Part of the reason is that few people are aware of state constitutions. Williams said that this is unfortunate; everybody knows quite a lot about the federal constitution, but there are no opportunities for people to get directly involved in reforming it.

“By contrast, a state constitution has avenues for participation, but low visibility,” Williams said.

Dinan said that there is widespread apathy about state constitutions.

“If you are apathetic and indifferent, your default vote is no,” he said.

Friedman said the Maryland Constitution is “difficult and unwieldy to work with,” but the General Assembly has been quite good at proposing amendments to it. Ratified in 1867, the current constitution has been amended almost 200 times.

At the bottom of this year’s ballot, besides the question on the convention, voters are asked to approve two minor amendments to the constitution. One changes the minimum dollar amount for a jury trial in civil suits from $10,000 to $15,000, and another requires that Orphans’ Court judges in Baltimore City be attorneys.