New York State Capitol

We’re voting for a Constitutional Convention. Here’s why you should too.

Reporters, in their ever-hovering presence over local government, tend to learn a thing or two in their time haunting the gilded hallways of their respective legislatures.

They learn, oftentimes in the press gaggle after, how often communities need to make tough choices. They can hear the frustration in the voice of some faceless bureaucrat how tough that decision was to make, something that no amount of newsprint can ever do justice to. They read every document, sit through the minutiae of every several hour policy discussion and, occasionally, might even write some of what was said throughout that time.

Oftentimes, sitting through some of these tough choices, you have to wonder what your government could have done better to avoid having to make these choices in the first place.

As a staff, we’ve thought of this plenty of times throughout the year. We wonder why we don’t have a better court system – to get our poorest out of jail faster, rather than languish through a three-month wait for trial – when the considerably smaller county next to us has one additional judge. We watch people complain about their property taxes going up and services being cut, never able to reaffirm enough the soaring cost of Medicaid and its tie to your tax bill (New York is the only state in the country, by the way, that does this) or the additional programs instituted by the state that never seem to play out. We’ve grown used to a pennies from heaven attitude from our legislature, a sort of powerlessness in the wake of the “Great Oz of Albany,” a sense of defeat that leaves us to wring our hands and say, “oh well, what can you do?”

And after seeing this enough, after wondering why local government and its part time decision makers can’t fix the obvious problems in our neighborhoods, you start to realize something: it’s not our legislature – our friends and neighbors, the people who know us best – failing us; it’s the people who don’t know us. It’s the decisions of people long-dead or deposed, or with interests that bely what affects us right here in our own neighborhoods. Its Albany, and a mountain of more than a century of compounded and misguided policies we, as citizens, have not done our part to correct.

With a once-in-a-generation chance facing us on Tuesday, we as a board are begging you to realize you, the little guy, have the power to make up for our decades of neglect.

When you step into the voting booth on Tuesday, you will be given the option to vote for a statewide Constitutional Convention, our first such opportunity in 20 years. This question – posed to you on the back of your ballot – is a simple one: whether or not you, the average voter, should embrace the option to circumvent your elected officials and take the constitution into your own hands, opening up every amendment, every facet of the convoluted document dictating our way of life and deciding whether or not any of its various pieces are working in our best interests.

At the local level, the benefits are obvious. For members of the legislature who have supported the convention, their efforts to improve the basic operations of Tompkins County have largely been hindered by the state itself, with many of what seem to be silver bullets for a litany of issues locally unavailable to us under a number of obscure tenets of the law that stand little chance of repeal through the traditional amendment process. New York State’s high property taxes that, by their very nature, are written into New York law, could finally get the honest investment of time it deserves. Our dysfunctional court system, with its long wait times and its burden on our jail, could be corrected to reflect the true needs of the criminal justice system in our community. Permanent protection for reproductive rights, term limits, even public financing for political campaigns can potentially be yours if you vote yes.

We’ve weighed what has been said on the other side. Many of the arguments against the convention, in our eyes, are simply not valid. Dark money impacting the process? Dark money is already in play in this race, largely funding the effort to get you to vote ‘no.’ Inaccurate estimates on the cost of a convention, or that not voting at all counts as anything other than abstention? All easily disproven measures. The one concern we find valid for those against the Constitutional Convention is the lack of accessibility to the race, a fear that only those with platforms – mayors, political organizers, think-tanks – will be able to mount successful runs, effectively shutting out the ‘common man’ from participating. But these people, oftentimes, are the outsiders, unbound by political allegiance and, at the local level, likely to be the most informed on what’s broken in state government, and therefore able to make more powerful cases for reform.

To us, we see the Constitutional Convention vote as a test of fear and faith. But a lot of the fear that has been sown is unfounded. The cost of the convention is not as high as people say it will be. Nobody is at risk of losing their pension. Robert Mercer hasn’t put a dime into this thing (and if you haven’t read the news lately, he’s so far in debt there’s no way of knowing if he’ll ever get a dime again.) And the thought that, even if one group managed to buy a majority of delegates, a few bad apples would not only 1) corrupt the entirety of the proceedings but 2) manage to dupe the voters into ratifying a constitution that dismantles our labor rights and opens the Adirondacks for hydrofracking (you really think they’d let you get away with that?) is mind-numbing fear mongering. The right-wing affiliates of Sinclair Broadcasting are for it? So are a number of large and small editorial boards, the list of those endorsing the idea of a convention including everyone from the New York Conference of mayors to small town politicians to the editorial boards of such rightwing rags as the Buffalo News, the New York Daily News, AM New York, The Syracuse Post Standard, etc. To even argue against such a measure from a place of sensationalism and speculation, in our eyes, is irresponsible and a disservice to the voters: the true route toward pulling the wool over someone's eyes and talking them out of something that could help them. Why else would the opposition spend so much to mislead you?

Paranoia is not a platform, progress is. And to us, a ‘no’ vote is a sign we’re too afraid of our own democracy, that its shortcomings are so many that we feel unsafe even participating in it, much less changing it out of fear the disfunction could get worse. But for all the people out there we fear are out to hurt us, there are many more who want to help us, who are just as frustrated as the people they serve. And this is their chance to make something out of it.

On Tuesday, we’re voting for progress.

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