EDITORIAL: Let’s have a ConCon

RUSSIANS AREN’T INTERESTED in us anymore. Before last year’s election Russian visits to our website comprised the second largest source of traffic after English language sites. Now? Nikto.

There’s no way to know what they wanted or whether they are got it. But we do know The Columbia Paper was not alone in experiencing this unexpected interest from Russian speakers. At least one other newspaper in this region reported a similar pattern when we inquired.

Since then Facebook and Google have acknowledged they sold presidential campaign ads to buyers associated with Russian government interests. And Facebook has found at least one phony account that served up political disinformation. That’s creepy.

Russian internet trolls cause trouble in the U.S., but social media platforms are crammed with domestic misinformation too, often relayed by innocent people with good intentions. We published a letter to the editor last week from two people urging opposition to the proposed state constitutional convention (“ConCon”).

Every 20 years the state is required to ask voters whether to convene a convention to consider amendments to the state constitution. The letter writers asserted that if voters chose not to vote on the question or if they didn’t realize the proposal is on the back of the ballot, their ballot would be counted as a Yes vote for a convention.

That’s not true. If you don’t mark a part of your ballot, that part isn’t counted. The letter’s authors realized their mistake and in this issue we print their correction. They deserve credit for acknowledging the error and an apology from me for not having caught the mistake before we published it.

The letter writers might also like to know they were tricked by a widely shared fake fact on Facebook. That bogus ballot warning is reproduced as an example of the misinformation about the state constitutional convention in a 72-page booklet just released by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. The institute is an independent public policy think tank that operates within the State University of New York System Administration.

The booklet, “DECISION ’17, The Citizens’ Guide to the Constitutional Convention,” traces the history of the state constitution and constitutional conventions, and it explains how a convention would work. It also presents informed arguments for and against holding approving one now. It’s online at: www.rockinst.org/nys_concon2017/pdf/Citizens_Guide.pdf.

Our state constitution is older than the Constitution of the United States and it started out trim and simple. But it’s been amended many times, making it longer and more detailed than the federal document. It guarantees a lot of rights, some of which are not available under the Constitution or in federal law.

If the state legislature–the Assembly and Senate–can agree, lawmakers can propose individual amendments to the state constitution whenever they want. The public then decides whether to approve or reject each proposal. Amendments happen occasionally but the legislature shows no interest in changes that would reform its corrupt practices.

So there’s a second option, the constitutional convention, where separately elected delegates–three from each of the 63 state Senate districts plus 15 at-large members–debate and propose all kinds of amendments. The ones that a majority of the delegates support will appear on the next statewide ballot. Again, voters have the final say.

But there won’t be a convention unless voters approve it this November 7. The last two times the public could choose to hold constitutional convention–1977 and 1997–voters turned it down.

Opponents of a convention fear that wealthy right wing forces will manipulate the process and produce amendments that rob New Yorkers of rights we now have. Their fears are justified. New Yorkers could suffer if the convention is hijacked by special interests.

Supporters believe this is the best chance voters have to clean up the bi-partisan rot that infects so much of state government. That might include term limits and less secrecy. They also see it as an opportunity to expand the rights of New Yorkers, which many previous conventions have done. They’re too optimistic, but without hope there’s no progress.

I’ll vote for the convention and trust that voters will reject amendments aimed at weakening our liberties or favoring the wealthy. I don’t underestimate the danger from dark money and the power of disinformation. But I refuse to allow those forces to cow me into denying the public a chance to improve how we are governed. If the enemies of progress are able frighten us into surrendering our right to debate amendments to the constitution, they will already have won.

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