Watchdogs want a “people’s convention”

Convention 1- Blair and Barbara
Gazette photo by Taylor Ricciardi
Blair Horner, NYPIRG’s executive director, left, and Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the League of Women Voters, are calling for a “people’s convention,” not a policy convention. They are asking for changes to New York State’s constitutional convention process that would deter the political establishment’s involvement.


Reform groups are calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers to create a commission that would develop a plan to properly run a constitutional convention. They are also urging lawmakers to consider reforming the convention process.

That is, of course, if New Yorkers actually decide they want a constitutional convention. Voters get a chance to decide whether to convene every 20 years and the convention was voted down in 1977 and 1997. Voters will get a chance to decide if they want a convention in November 2017.

If a convention is voted for, 204 delegates would be chosen by voters who decide upon constitutional changes to propose. There are three delegates for each of the state’s 63 Senate districts and 15 selected statewide. There are no restrictions for delegates; anyone can run for the position.

Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director at the League of Women Voters, said the 1997 convention went down by a 2-1 margin because legislators were running for delegate positions to make extra money and increase their pensions. The New York State Constitution states that delegates are to be paid as much as legislators, which is currently $79,500 per year.

“The public really didn’t like that these guys were going to cash in big,” Bartoletti said.

Bartoletti said elected officials should be restricted from receiving double their salaries and pension elevation.

“We think that would go a great distance in people feeling more comfortable that this was actually a people’s convention of representatives who actually want to change the constitution, rather than business as usual in Albany,” Bartoletti said.

Blair Horner, legislative director at New York Public Interest Research Group, said the watchdog groups want average citizens pushing potential constitutional changes, not elected officials who have specific agendas.

“We’re trying to do what we can to limit the involvement of the political establishment in the convention,” Horner said. “We want a people’s convention, not a policy convention.”

The groups called for state-sponsored voter pamphlets to provide voters with biographical information about candidates as well as their experience in government. They are asking for a lower signature count for delegate candidates to get on the ballot which they said would increase diversity.

The watchdog groups also asked that the commission eliminate slate voting, where political parties place all 15 of their “at large” candidates on a single card, meaning that voters cannot vote for individual candidates.

Both NYPIRG and the League of Women Voters do not yet have official positions on whether their groups are supporting a constitutional convention, but they are urging lawmakers to make these recommended changes before next year’s vote.