Ohio voters are asked every 20 years, by law, whether they want to call a citizens’ convention that would update the state constitution or write a new one. Each time the question has arisen since 1932, Ohioans have said no. But this year’s request, embodied in Issue 1 on the fall ballot, deserves a YES vote.
The constitution, written in 1851, has grown largely obsolete — a reflection of a dysfunctional state government and of failing popular sovereignty. Many of its recent amendments have been expressions not of the public interest, but of the influence of moneyed special interests, such as casino owners, or single-issue ideological zealots, such as opponents of Obamacare or same-sex marriage.
Ohio’s basic law deserves a thorough, systematic review by a broad and diverse cross-section of citizens. Issue 1 would authorize a convention of elected delegates. Voters would approve or reject any amendment the convention proposes.
Still, opponents of Issue 1 express alarm at the prospect of a costly and riotous “runaway” convention. They say poorly qualified, inexperienced, extremist delegates could grab control and ram through radical amendments.
They prefer what they call a safer alternative — leaving the job of modernizing the constitution to a bipartisan commission of supposed experts, named by legislative leaders to propose changes to lawmakers and voters over the next decade.
Aside from the elitist disdain conveyed in opposition to a convention of citizens, the critics ignore a salient fact: The current legislature hasn’t earned the right to guide the modernization process.
Twelve seats on the 32-member legislative commission are reserved for lawmakers. Leaders have named ex-lawmakers and a former governor to several of the “citizen” positions. So much for membership diversity.
This is the same General Assembly that has long ignored a mandate from the Ohio Supreme Court to develop a fairer way of funding the state’s public schools. The results of that constitutional default: slashes of $1.8 billion in state aid to education in the current budget, and even greater overreliance on the local property tax to pay for schools, although tax bases vary widely from district to district.
If Ohio voters reject Issue 2 on this year’s ballot (they shouldn’t), the state would still need a better, fairer, politically neutral way of drawing congressional and legislative districts. The current winner-take-all system allows the party in power to rig the system outrageously to its advantage.
A constitutional convention could address this issue. It could look for better ways to force state lawmakers to become more responsive to constituents than the blunt instrument of term limits.
It could examine merit selection of state judges. It could propose efficient reforms of local governments.
Ohio’s last constitutional convention, approved in 1912, did such useful things as enable voters to enact laws directly and to affirm or repeal laws passed by the legislature. It proposed — but did not prevail on — such progressive measures as giving women the vote and the ability to run for a wider array of offices, and removing obstacles to nonwhite voters to exercise their franchise.
It’s exciting to think a convention a century later could be equally bold and productive. The supposed dangers of a citizens’ convention — excess partisanship, special-interest domination, ideological extremism — are all business as usual in the Statehouse. There’s no reason to expect the innovation this state needs from a creation of the legislature.
If voters reject Issue 1, the General Assembly still could ask voters whether they want to hold a constitutional convention before the next 20 years are up. Don’t hold your breath.
Columbus’ professional political class has failed in its duty to bring the Ohio constitution into the 21st century. Time to trust the people — that is, yourselves. Vote YES on Issue 1.
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