Constitutional convention question moves forward

By Andy Rosen

Lawmakers backed a bill Wednesday that would allow voters to call a constitutional convention after November’s election.

The Senate Rules Committee approved a ballot measure that would ask voters this November whether they want to call a convention, after the General Assembly’s lawyer told lawmakers that they essentially had no choice.

“My legal advice is very simple,” said Dan Friedman, the assistant attorney general assigned to the legislature. “It is your constitutional obligation to pass this bill. You don’t have a choice.”

Such a question has not appeared on the ballot since 1990, and comes up every 20 years. The General Assembly must approve a bill to put the measure before voters, a move that the constitution requires. However, it takes strong support to call a convention because of the way lawmakers have historically interpreted the constitution.

The state has never called a constitutional convention based on the 20-year requirement, though five have been called for other reasons. The questions received narrow majorities in 1930 and 1950. However, lawmakers decided not to call conventions in those cases, using the justification that the votes in favor didn’t make up a majority of the total election turnout.

Friedman said the measure would likely need “overwhelming” support to pass. Advocates would likely have to find a galvanizing issue to attract votes.

The most recent constitutional convention was in 1967, after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Maryland legislative districts because they did not conform to its one-person-one-vote ruling. Voters overwhelmingly voted to call the convention, but later balked at its product when it appeared on another ballot.

Senate President Mike Miller recognized that the question must appear on the ballot, but he does not think there should be a constitutional convention. He said he was interested in hearing what citizens think about it, though.

“I do remember a very long, costly constitutional convention in the ’60s, and it was put to the people, and the people rejected it,” Miller said. “I don’t think we need, this time, to go through such an exercise in futility.”

House leaders said Tuesday they had not begun to discuss the matter yet. It is expected to pass, though.

It is not clear what would happen if the General Assembly declined to pass a bill to put the measure before voters, as that would be an apparent violation of the constitution. It requires lawmakers to “provide by law for taking … the sense of the People in regard to calling a Convention for altering [Maryland’s] Constitution.”

Advocates this year have begun campaigning for voter approval for a 2010 convention.  An op-ed in The Baltimore Sun last month argued that voters could address issues that politicians are unlikely to deal with, such as campaign contributions and term limits.

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