A constitutional question

On Nov. 2, Maryland voters get their once-every-20-years chance to decide whether to convene a constitutional convention. In theory, it's an appealing idea. Such an exercise would afford the opportunity for citizens to enact specific reforms that lawmakers concerned with protecting their incumbency are unwilling to consider, and the process affords voters much more power over the final outcome than they get when they send lawmakers to the General Assembly session every year. In an ideal world, it would lead to a convention of independent, civic-minded individuals thinking deeply about how to make our state government more open, transparent and responsive.

But we don't live in an ideal world, and the chances of such an outcome are slim. The vested interests who hold so much sway over our current government would almost certainly do the same in a constitutional convention, and the whole exercise might well wind up as a lengthy failure.

That said, proponents of a constitutional convention have some good arguments.

First of all, the idea of a convention isn't so radical as it might sound on the ballot. Maryland's constitution isn't some sacred document like the federal constitution — it's been rewritten altogether three times already and is hardly elegant or profound. All the talk that putting a clause about slot machine gambling in the constitution would foul it up ignores the fact that there's plenty of junk in there already, most notably an entire section about off-street parking in Baltimore. And a constitutional convention doesn't mean we throw out our government and start from scratch. Delegates to the convention could propose a whole-scale rewrite, but given the failure of that approach in the past, they would more likely offer up specific amendments.

Another key fact about a constitutional convention is that the question before voters on Election Day doesn't give some group carte blanche to do whatever it likes. If voters approve a convention, they would then have the opportunity to select delegates to the convention from each legislative district. Those people would then meet to debate possible changes to the document, and whatever they agree on would then go before the voters again for approval. Voters essentially get three bites at the apple: deciding whether to hold a convention at all, picking the people who will represent them at the convention, and then approving or vetoing the product of that convention.

What might a convention do? It could enact campaign finance reform, such as a public financing system and/or significantly greater disclosure of who is giving money to candidates. It could create a nonpolitical system of drawing legislative districts so that the once-a-decade exercise isn't just a way to protect incumbents and foster the power of whatever party is in the majority. It could force greater transparency in the legislature so that ordinary residents can use modern, electronic means to monitor the work of their elected representatives and judge how they vote. It could open up the primary election process to lessen the power of the political parties and give voters more choice.

But it could also produce reforms that sound good in theory but work out less well in practice. A voter referendum process could get a great deal of popular support behind the idea of direct democracy, but in places like California, that has led to fiscal disaster and has just opened one more arena for special interests to influence government. Term limits are also popular but would be a bad idea. People like them because they believe entrenched incumbents lose touch with voters and become too cozy with vested interests like unions, big business and lobbyists. But with term limits, lawmakers have less experience and feel less secure. That can actually make them more susceptible to influence from entrenched interests; after all, there would be no term limits for lobbyists. You pick your poison, but without term limits, voters at least have the choice of keeping good legislators.

The last time Maryland held a constitutional convention was 1967, and The Sun opined at the time that "a distinguished body of citizens" through "four months of hard work and serious debate, marked by an absence of partisan politics" approved a much-needed modernization of the state's guiding document. Among the delegates to the convention, a mere 10 percent were elected officeholders, and the document they produced actually called for a reduction in the number of legislators, the removal of General Assembly power over local matters and the depoliticization of judicial appointment and elections. But even this, the voters rejected.

Thirty-three years later, would things be any better? Since then, the role of money in politics and the gerrymandering of legislative districts have both increased markedly. It seems unlikely that just 10 percent of delegates to the convention would be incumbents, and those who weren't officeholders might well be surrogates or beholden to other special interests. The people who have the organization, fundraising muscle and name recognition to get elected to office would have a natural advantage in the election of delegates, too. Not to mention a vested interest in being part of the process. That doesn't necessarily mean they would be bad delegates, just that whatever structural barriers that exist to reform through the normal work of the General Assembly would likely exist in a constitutional convention, too.

And the issues proponents argue could only be dealt with in a constitutional convention may not be intractable through the normal process. Public pressure in recent years has been effective in advancing many of the convention proponents' goals: The General Assembly recently came within a few votes of public financing for campaigns; leaders in the legislature have taken some preliminary moves in the last year to make the process more transparent; and in 2002, when partisan gerrymandering went too far, the courts intervened.

In 1990, voters also had the opportunity to convene a constitutional convention. The Sun advised at the time that, given the failure of the 1967 effort, it would be wiser to pursue whatever reforms are needed as individual amendments through the normal legislative process. Indeed, many of the ideas the convention came up with in the 1960s eventually became law that way. We think that's still good advice.

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