Calling a Constitutional Convention

Where does this Route Take California?

After a deliberative, participatory process, convention delegates would propose changes to the constitution that could be more fundamental and wide-ranging than any single initiative. But there are several questions about this route to reform. Who would these delegates be, and would their proposals reflect what Californians want? Would a convention veer away from governmental reform into the many policy areas covered by our current constitution, which addresses social issues such as same sex marriage and contains entire articles on motor vehicle revenues and usury? Could delegates avoid the pitfalls that have doomed some constitutional conventions in states such as New York in 1967 (PDF), or would they compromise to propose popular reforms as Illinois delegates did in 1970 (PDF)?

How do you call a Constitutional Convention?

Legislators
State legislators would need to agree with a two-thirds vote of each house to ask voters to call the convention, a majority of voters need to agree, and delegates would then be elected from districts. Many observers doubt that the legislature could reach the necessary two-thirds bipartisan consensus in the current political climate.

Voters
Another option would be to amend the constitution to give voters the power to call a convention. Recently, groups like Repair California have tried to gather signatures to place this initiative constitutional amendment on the ballot, and also to qualify an initiative that would call a convention with 465 delegates selected partially through appointments made by local government, and partly by bringing randomly selected citizens together to elect some of their own as delegates.

How Has this Route Been Used in the Past?

After California’s original constitution was written in 1849, our state has only held one convention. This meeting, which stretched from 1878 into 1879, has been criticized for the lack of diversity in its delegates and the anti-immigrant policies advance, but resulted in the passage by voters of a new constitution. You can read or watch historian Amy Bridge’s account of this convention or browse the convention’s own documents. Voters rejected the legislature’s call for constitutional conventions in 1898, 1914, 1928, and 1930. When voters narrowly approved this call (as one of 23 propositions on the ballot) in 1934, the legislature failed to fund and convene it.

Other States

Many other states have held constitutional conventions, some successful and some failures. This nationwide analysis (PDF) shows that, since 1930, there have been 35 successful conventions, but also 27 failures that did not lead to any voter-approved reforms.

Successful Conventions:

  • Focused on a limited set of questions.
  • Put a series of separate proposals in front of voters rather than a single, omnibus package.

Although no other states have taken the Repair California approach of random delegate selection, British Columbia used this method twice in an attempt to change one section of that Canadian province’s Charter. Although both proposals failed at the ballot box, many observers (PDF) thought that the process worked well. Overall, you can read (PDF) or watch what national expert G. Alan Tarr, the Director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers, says about the lessons that the experiences of other states hold for California.

What are the Pros and Cons of this Route?

Pros:

  • Uses a deliberative process to propose comprehensive reform.
  • Convention delegates, rather than state legislators or initiative sponsors, would meet to draft constitutional revisions over a six to nine month process.
  • It would be open to public scrutiny, and force delegates to assemble a majority behind any proposed change.
  • The proposals that convention delegates made would not be limited by the single subject rule that limits initiatives, nor would they be limited to simply amendment rather than revising the constitution.
  • A convention would also likely spark a larger civic debate about reform issues.

Cons:

  • Concerns about whether or not the delegates would truly be representative of the population.
  • Could delay reform.
  • Could run into too many legal and political roadblocks.
  • Difficult to find adequate sponsorship for unknown outcome.

Challenges to Repair California’s Proposal

The type of convention proposed by Repair California does not allow any open election of delegates, which is a fundamental process of democracy that many states have used to ensure that delegates share the vision of voters. Any convention called in the 2010 election would need time to deliberate, and thus would not put reforms before voters until 2012. There are several potential legal challenges to the Repair California proposal, and you can watch Stanford Law School’s Pam Karlan and UC Davis Law School’s Chris Elmendorf debate their merits. Finally, you can watch (discussion begins at 31:00) veteran political consultant Richard Temple discuss the advantages and obstacles that a convention’s proposals would eventually face at the ballot box, and read an analysis of public opinion on the issue.

What Can I do to Choose This Route?

Although their drive to make the ballot in 2010 has stalled, Repair California remains the most prominent group pushing for a constitutional convention. You can read more about the two Repair California propositions that would need to pass in order for voters to call a constitutional convention. Click here to find how to join the Repair California effort.