The Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York (SUNY); the Government Law Center at Albany Law School; the League of Woman Voters of NYS; the Center for Research, Regional Education & Outreach (CRREO) at SUNY New Paltz; and the Siena Research Institute (SRI) today officially announced the creation of a multiyear educational campaign to promote public awareness of the statewide referendum on a constitutional convention, scheduled by law to occur in November 2017. The initiative, organizers said, will effectively operate as a citizen's campaign to promote understanding of the constitutional convention referendum of 2017. This group will take no position on whether the public should vote "yes" or "no" on the ballot proposition. Rather, it will work to inform the public of the constitutional issues at stake and the process used to call and convene a convention.
Every twenty years, the New York constitution requires a referendum on the question: "Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?" The last vote took place in 1997, when voters decided not to call a convention. The last convention took place in 1967, but the proposed constitution was voted down by New Yorkers, largely because it had to be approved as a single document. By contrast, in 1938 voters approved six of the nine questions an earlier convention placed before them.
The likely sequence of events in 2017 is as follows:
- If the November 2017 ballot proposition is disapproved, no further action is taken.
- If the 2017 ballot proposition is approved, the constitution requires that there will be statewide elections in 2018 to select convention delegates. Three must be elected from each Senate district and fifteen at-large. The other rules for nomination and election of delegates are specified by statute.
- The convention would convene in Albany in April of 2019. At the conclusion of its work, it has the power to propose an entirely new constitution, or place suggested amendments to the current state constitution on the ballot. Such amendments become effective only if approved by voters.
According to campaign organizers, the work of this consortium of educational organizations will include statewide public forums, publications, and other media initiatives, many involving the state's public and private colleges and universities. While the programs will be targeted at the general public, the group plans to engage high school and college students, in particular. The efforts of the group began with a forum on executive authority in state budgeting that occurred at Albany Law School in June of 2015. Their work is scheduled to continue through the November 2017 vote and, if a convention is called for by the voters, through the completion of the work of the convention.
"Every 20 years, the people of the state of New York have an opportunity to involve themselves in the structure of New York's government by voting to hold a constitutional convention. While the Rockefeller Institute, a nonpartisan research institution, has no vested interest on whether or not a convention is held, we see this exercise of civic participation as being of utmost important to New York's citizens. For the vote to be reflective of the people's will, awareness of it must be high. The Rockefeller Institute has, therefore, committed to working to ensure maximum awareness of the convention vote statewide in November of 2017," stated Robert Bullock, deputy director for operations for the Rockefeller Institute and the Institute's constitutional convention coordinator.
"Educating the public on the process, timetable and potential impact of a possible constitutional convention is critical to ensuring an informed electorate when the proposal is on the ballot in 2017. The League of Women Voters of NYS is proud to work with these other organizations in this education effort. With the help of the over 50 local Leagues statewide, educational programs will provide public discussion in advance of the 2017 ballot proposal," stated Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director, the League of Women Voters of NYS.
Ray Brescia, associate professor of law at Albany Law School and director of its Government Law Center, added, "New York's first constitution is a remarkable document. It has, since its adoption in 1777, knitted together and guided one of the more heterogeneous states in the nation. But after 238 years and more than 150 amendments, the public will be asked in two short years whether a convention should be held to revisit our state constitution, its scope and content. The Government Law Center of Albany Law School is so pleased to collaborate with our distinguished colleagues in an effort to promote an understanding of the upcoming referendum and issues likely to come before the public," he said.
"This state constitutional requirement puts a major choice before New York voters at an important time in state history. Unlike citizens in many other states, New Yorkers rarely make important policy choices through the use of the referendum process. Both for this reason, and because of the wide-ranging importance of the state constitution, it is crucial that this choice be made in the most informed way and with as full as possible engagement of the citizenry," stated Gerald Benjamin, director of CRREO at SUNY New Paltz.
"As an academically situated polling institute focused primarily on New York State, the Siena College Research Institute is dedicated to measuring public awareness and understanding of the constitutional convention process. We are happy to contribute to this collaborative effort to not only track public opinion, but also to simultaneously keep the voters of New York informed on how their fellow citizens feel about this important component of our democracy," said SRI's director, Don Levy.
Individuals or organizations with an interest in the work of this group may contact Bullock at (518) 443-5837 or firstname.lastname@example.org.