By Kevin Frazier
A State Constitutional Convention
In less than two years, Rhode Island residents will have an opportunity to serve as the democratic innovators so desperately needed in these gridlocked times. Every ten years, a question is placed on Rhode Island ballots: “Shall there be a convention to amend or revise the Constitution?” The last time the majority of voters answered, “Yes,” was back in 1984. When the same question is asked in 2024, voters should seize the opportunity to provide the nation with an example of performing overdue maintenance on their state constitution.
State constitutions are among the most important democratic tools, yet are unknown to the majority of people. More than half of Americans do not know whether their state has a constitution. This awareness gap limits the protections state constitutions can afford to their citizens. For instance, the Montana’s Constitution includes several inalienable rights you won’t in the federal Constitution — in particular, Montanans have a right to privacy as well as a right to a clean and healthful environment. However, if Montanans don’t know about these rights, how can they enforce them?
Not all state constitutions, though, are as tailored to modern threats to our democracy as Montana’s Constitution. That’s why state constitutional conventions deserve attention from voters in states like Rhode Island who have upcoming opportunities to update and upgrade their constitutions. Michigan voters can approve a convention via a ballot referral in 2026; voters in Hawaii, Connecticut, and Illinois can do the same in 2028.
Reviving the Democratic Spirit
Citizens of Rhode Island who want to revive the democratic spirit of their constitution need to start educating voters now on what a constitutional convention could look like. Absent a proactive effort to provide voters with a clear understanding on the limits and powers of such a convention, it will be too easy for opponents of such a convention to paint it as an opportunity for power-hungry, partisan interests to entrench their power through new constitutional provisions.
Here are three things that pro-constitutional convention residents in Rhode Island (and other states with upcoming ballot referrals) can start doing:
Give the People the Power
Explain how the people — not parties or special interests — will control the constitutional convention. There is no one way to put people in the driver’s seat of a convention, but Iceland’s recent constitutional revision process offers some useful guidance. Iceland relied heavily on deliberative democratic tools to ensure that normal people played the most important roles at the convention. For example, they randomly selected Icelanders to form an assembly charged with setting the agenda for the convention. Likewise, they used Youtube and other social media sites to solicit input from the public on draft constitutional provisions. Rhode Island advocates can get ahead of those who think the people are not up to the task of hosting a sensible, pragmatic convention by showing all the means through which the people will move the convention forward.
Involve the Public
Start engaging the people now — in addition to giving the people a sense of what the convention could look like, advocates for that convention can and should start developing ways for people to share their thoughts on the keys issues for that convention. This activity — effectively, educating people about the current contents of the Rhode Island constitution and then asking them how they think it could be improved — is of democratic value even if the constitutional convention is not approved at the ballot. This outreach will also reduce people’s fears of a constitutional convention going off the proverbial rails.
Encourage Broad Public Support
Build a diverse, nonpartisan coalition of advocates — if the constitutional convention appears in any way to be a partisan or special interest project, then it will lose the support and participation of the people. Advocates should recruit well-known community leaders from around the state to join a coordinating committee — this committee can rally support from residents of all partisan and personal backgrounds.
State constitutions shape our democracy. However, due to neglect, they have become saddled by amendments and retained vestigial provisions. Rhode Island residents should vote to host a constitutional convention when the question appears in 2024 and, in hosting the convention, show other states that such conventions can be incredible opportunities for strengthening our democracy as well as our ability to take collective action.
About the Author
Kevin Frazier (@KevinTFrazier) will join the faculty of the Knudson School of Law at the University of South Dakota next Academic Year as a Visiting Professor. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Law and Harvard Kennedy School.
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