What’s This About A State Constitutional Convention?

A Lesson Package to Educate New York’s Voters Young & Old about This Rare Automatic Ballot Question

In just under a month New Yorkers will have a once every 20 year opportunity to decide whether to call a constitutional convention to review our New York State constitution. Despite how little time remains before this rare vote, according to a recent Siena poll 73% of respondents have heard nothing at all or not very much about the upcoming automatic ballot question. Generation Citizen’s recently released a New York Constitutional Convention Lesson package to address this alarming lack of knowledge and to ensure that New York’s voters, including especially the youth, understand the significance of this infrequent opportunity.

The two day lessons are a free resource for teachers to implement with their 8–12th grade students, but can also be accessed by adults, too. The goal of these lessons is for students to: 1) become informed about this process; 2) make a personal decision on the question; and 3) be motivated and able to inform their communities about the process.

This lesson package is nonpartisan, approaching the upcoming vote from a historical perspective, educating students on the procedure’s origins, and the history of past conventions. From there, students research and brainstorm the various pros and cons for holding the convention. The first lesson serves to make them experts on the possibility of the convention, and day two’s lesson begins with an analysis of the statistics on voter knowledge, challenging the students to act on their new expertise to educate and inform their communities.

The lesson package is customizable in that it includes tactical guides that teachers and students can choose from when taking action. These guides include templates to enable the user to: 1) contact local elected officials and ask for their support in educating community members; 2) host a community meeting where students present information on the upcoming vote; and 3) utilize the press to inform community members. By the end of the lesson and project, teachers, students, and community members will be more aware and equipped to make an informed decision in November.

Generation Citizen created this resource to help educate and inform New Yorkers given this rare chance for New Yorkers to have a chance to determine whether their current state constitution is meeting their needs and expectations. This resource is also timely and relevant as young voters are the fastest growing voting group nationwide, yet often have the least knowledge about how government and politics actually work. Generation Citizen believes this is due, at least in part, to the fact that we’ve systemically deemphasized civics education in our school system. We seek to address the root cause of this problem by getting civics education back into middle and high schools using a new, engaging pedagogy: Action Civics. We partner with teachers and schools to help them implement a comprehensive, high-quality Action Civicseducation program taught twice weekly over the course of a semester, often added to History, Social Studies, Participation in Government, or similar in-school class time.

By way of brief background, the Constitutional Convention automatic ballot referral originated from a meeting of New York state constitutional delegates in 1846. Believing the people needed more of a say in their state government, the delegates wrote this automatic ballot referral procedure into the New York State Constitution. Since then New Yorkers have voted to hold a constitutional convention five different times.

A constitutional convention presents a unique opportunity for citizens to participate directly in their democracy. This is different from the traditional law-making process, however, which is completed primarily by elected representatives. On November 7, 2017, New Yorkers statewide will have the chance, yet again, to vote on whether they would like to convene a constitutional convention to modify the current New York State Constitution. If a majority of voters approve, then voters will be asked to vote on state delegates to represent them at the convention, which will be convened on April 2, 2019. Proposed constitutional amendments drafted during this constitutional convention must be approved by the voters after the constitutional convention adjourns. Direct democracy can be seen at each point in this complicated and rare process as New York citizens participate directly in choosing to hold a convention, in choosing who represents them at the convention, and in choosing whether or not proposed amendments emanating from the convention will be adopted and added to the New York State Constitution.

If the voters reject holding a Constitutional Convention, however, the New York state legislature can pass legislatively referred referendums, the primary method for amending the New York State Constitution. One of the reasons legislatively referred amendments is the most commonly utilized method is likely because most New Yorkers aren’t even aware of the Constitutional Convention process and the potential consequences of the upcoming vote.

Our hope is that this lesson package will not only raise awareness about the significance of the November 7th vote, but will also spur a much-needed public discussion about the importance of civics education in strengthening our democracy to ensure that students statewide possess the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to participate in our 21st century democracy.

Written by DeNora Getachew, New York City Executive Director and Bonnie Mills, Manager of National Program and Partnership Development