R.I. Needs a Constitutional Convention

Article excerpt

This November, Rhode Islanders will vote on whether to convene a constitutional convention. Throughout most of American history, state constitutional conventions were a regular occurrence. But not one has been approved during the last 30 years, the longest stretch in U.S. history. Understanding why should help you decide how to vote.

Rhode Island's own history regarding constitutional conventions is extraordinary. Of the original 13 U.S. states, it was one of only two that didn't convene a constitutional convention to change its colonial charter. It was the only state to refuse to attend the federal constitutional convention in 1787, the last to ratify the Constitution, and the only one to attempt ratification via a popular referendum.

By the early 1840s, Rhode Island's constitution, the last state constitution derived from a colonial charter, was highly undemocratic. It let a small rural elite control the legislature, and that elite refused to convene a constitutional convention to reallocate power. This led to one of the few incidents in Rhode Island history taught in introductory American history textbooks: the Dorr Rebellion. The Dorrites forced the government to adopt a new, more democratic constitution.

The Dorr Rebellion profoundly influenced other states, encouraging four states between 1846 and 1851 to adopt the periodic (also called the "self-executing") constitutional convention referendum, whose goal was to make it possible for citizens to use the ballot box rather than violence to democratize their constitutions in the face of a recalcitrant legislature. Today, 14 states have such referendums, but Rhode Island would be the last of these to get one - in 1973.

In 1984, Rhode Island was also the last state to actually approve a constitutional convention - a convention that was widely reported as a great success.

The decline in convening state constitutional conventions as a way to fix dysfunctional state politics can largely be explained by the growth of incumbent entrenchment, big business and big labor.

As serving in state legislatures evolved during the last several hundred years from being a part-time, volunteer activity to a career, incumbent legislators came to see state constitutional conventions as a threat to their continuing entrenchment in office.

Joining forces with incumbent legislators were big business in the late 19th century and big labor, especially public employee unions, in the late 20th. These powerful special interest groups saw the unlimited constitutional convention as a threat to their power because, compared with the legislature, it's a relatively transparent and accountable process. Over many months and much public deliberation, the public gets three votes: to convene a convention, to elect its members, and, most important, to ratify its proposals. …