By Rebecca Liebson and Brittany Bernstein
Walking through the sea of cars in Nassau County Community College’s busiest parking lot, the bumper stickers are impossible to miss: “VOTE NO!” This straightforward slogan urges voters to oppose a question that will appear on the back of the ballot Nov. 7: should New York hold a convention to amend the state constitution?
“Every 20 years there’s this vote,” Blair Horner, Executive Director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “New York is one of 14 states that has this type of provision in its constitution which allows for the public, if they’re not happy with the way their government operates, or they want to see an expansion or a restriction on liberties, they can do it by convening a convention,” he explained to the crowd gathered at Nassau Community College’s Oct. 30 debate on the matter.
While the electorate as a whole remains divided on the matter, A recent Newsday/Siena College poll found that 64 percent of Suffolk County voters surveyed opposed the convention.
Supporters of the ballot measure are mainly grassroot progressive groups lobbying for anti-corruption reforms such as term limits for state legislators, campaign finance controls, and protections against partisan gerrymandering — the redrawing of voting district lines in a way that ensures a particular party will win.
“We have had more legislators and other public officials go in jail and lose office due to corruption since 2000 than any other state in the union,” Thomas Bergdall, a Senior Associate for with Citizen’s Union arguing the pro-side at Monday’s debate said. “This is really our chance as citizens to fix what we consider to be a very broken democracy.”
Opponents to the convention are mainly motivated by the what-ifs surrounding favorable policies that could be overturned. This side features an unlikely coalition of allies including Planned Parenthood and the state’s Conservative party.
Union members are among the most vocal opponents of the referendum. Their primary concern is losing their pensions. In the last two weeks, the the New York State United Teachers union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Civil Service Employees Association, and the New York State AFL-CIO have spent a combined total of $1.24 million to promote the vote no campaign.
If the constitution is put under scrutiny, Roger Clayman, Executive Director of the Long Island Federation of Labor, which represents 250,000 of Long Island’s 302,868 union workers , said he fears hard-earned protections like worker’s compensation and collective bargaining rights may be up for grabs.
“The proponents, many of them may honestly believe they need to accomplish certain things like ethics reform and they’re finding it hard to do it through the process that we have with the legislature,” Clayman said. “It’s not easy. But the problem is you run a lot of risks if you do it this way, by opening up the entire constitution to a convention.”
Those arguing in favor of a convention, including Bill Samuels, founder of anti-corruption group EffectiveNY, have contested the idea that workers’ interests will be threatened.
“What’s unique about what the constitutional convention for unions did in 1938 is, they made union pension agreements contracts,” he said, adding that these types of contracts are protected under Article 1 section 10 clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution.
In Samuels’ eyes, the backlash against the convention by groups that typically champion progressive causes is the result of widespread fear mongering at the hands of those already in power. “People that favor the status quo because they’re well connected in Albany are against this convention and they have not been truthful to the people,” he said.
Some have questioned whether the types of reforms Bergdall and Samuels are pushing for would be best served through holding a convention.
“The list of changes that need to be made can also be done legislatively in a much more democratic way, with open public comment,” Susan Gottehrer director of the Nassau County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who argued the con-side in the debate said. “One brick at a time, we can do it through legislation.”