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Voters will decide whether to call a constitutional convention

Voters in Maryland will get a chance in this year's election to launch a process to revise the state constitution, but experts predict the measure will be a hard sell.

Every 20 years, state lawmakers are required to pass legislation placing a constitutional convention question on the ballot. Still, just one has been called in the state since 1867.

Such "mandatory" calls tend to pass only when there are "galvanizing issues" that mobilize voters, said Daniel A. Friedman, an assistant attorney general who is counsel to the Maryland General Assembly and author of "The Maryland State Constitution: A Reference Guide."

This year, there doesn't appear to be any such issues, he said.

Voters are thinking "whatever problems Maryland has, it's not in the constitution," said Mark Graber, a University of Maryland law and government professor, who agreed that a convention will likely not be summoned.

A Baltimore Sun survey showed that three out of 10 likely voters were not sure how they would vote on State Question 1, the call for a constitutional convention question. Thirty-seven percent of voters said they were against it, and 34 percent planned to vote for it, according to a telephone sample of 798 voters conducted by OpinionWorks of Annapolis.

Robert F. Williams, a constitutional law professor at Rutgers University, said "apathy is a huge problem," adding that "it's hard to get people energized" unless they have a particular interest they are trying to preserve or promote.

Historically, Williams said, business groups, unions and other special interests feared constitutional conventions because they worried that voters would enact measures that harmed them. But now, he said the fear is reversed, with voters worried that deep-pocketed interests would get their way. Other opponents, he said, see conventions as "simply more government" and worry about "opening a Pandora's box" if one is convened.

Maryland is one of four states with convention ballot questions this year, along with Michigan, Montana and Iowa. Williams wouldn't predict if any states will succeed in passing the measures, "but in the face of mistrust, apathy and misunderstanding, it's not a fair fight."

Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said during a debate last week that a convention had the potential to produce positive results, but each stopped short of fully endorsing the ballot question, saying they would follow the will of voters.

To call a convention, a majority of the people who vote in the fall election — not just on the ballot question, but everyone voting for anything — must approve. Then, perhaps in a special election, four citizens from each of Maryland's 47 state legislative districts would be elected as representatives.

In 1966 — off-cycle and after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Maryland's legislative districts were unconstitutional — voters agreed to a convention, but its work was rejected and no constitutional changes were made.

Maryland's 150-year-old constitution shows its age in the eyes of many. It's considered difficult to follow, packed with antiquated language and long — with sections on off-street parking rules in Baltimore City, development of the Port of Baltimore and regulation of slot machines.

"We've been going by the 1867 constitution," which "has been amended hundreds of times — that's where we are—a messy document," Friedman said.

Williams said that mandatory convention questions tend to come up at inopportune times — "It doesn't always coincide with a felt need," he said — and there is concern over the costs.

But Severna Park resident J.H. Snider, an outspoken proponent of a convention, has said that the initiative would the best way for Marylanders to address issues such as campaign financing and term limits that lawmakers often avoid because of self-interest.

Williams called such conventions "one of the great inventions of our country." The ability of citizens "to frame their own government had never been done anywhere else in the world," he said, calling Thomas Jefferson the founder of the concept.

"This idea that the people would form their own government," he said, "is pretty amazing."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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