Constitutional conventions: A relic of old or a chance for reform? It’s time for voters to decide 

The state’s House of Representatives Monday unanimously approved two resolutions sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat, on the once-in-a-decade opportunity. /RHODE ISLAND CURRENT/ALEXANDER CASTRO

Shall there be a convention to amend or revise the state constitution? 

The state’s House of Representatives Monday unanimously approved two resolutions sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat, on the once-in-a-decade opportunity. 

One resolution would place the convention question on the Nov. 5 ballot. The other creates a 12-member commission that would prepare a report by Sept. 1 on the potential constitutional questions and considerations should voters want to make changes to the state’s governing documents. 

Both of Craven’s resolutions now head to the Senate for consideration where companion legislation is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat.  

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Euer’s resolution to put the convention question on the ballot was advanced to the floor, but has not been scheduled as of Monday. The legislation to create a bipartisan commission will be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday evening. 

Rhode Island is one of five states, along with Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa and New Hampshire, where people automatically have the chance to vote to hold a constitutional convention every 10 years. The General Assembly may also propose amendments during any election year. 

The convention question typically goes on the ballot in years ending in the number four, but voters have not agreed to convene one in the last three decades. The state’s most recent convention saw delegates create an Ethics Commission, restore felons’ voting rights, and clarify Rhode Islanders’ rights to the shoreline. 

That was in 1986. 

 “It’s crazy because conventions used to be really common in the 19th century and even in the first half of the 20th,” John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said in an interview Monday.  

But Marion said constitutional conventions started to fall out of fashion mostly because of political polarization. 

“That’s led to a real hesitation toward opening up some of our governing documents,” he said. 

Should a majority of Rhode Islanders want to move ahead with a convention, Marion said the state would have to set up a special election to select 75 convention delegates to represent each of the state House districts. 

 “If that were to play out this time – a year from now we’d see that election,” he said. “We wouldn’t see a convention until around 2026.” 

Once the delegates meet, any issue could be brought forth for debate – and there are plenty of proposals that could come up.  

R.I. Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias named term limits, stronger access to public records, and a line-item veto for the governor as examples of possible changes to be considered. 

Frias said delegates could also use the convention as an avenue to create an inspector general’s office – something Rhode Island Republicans have sought for the past two decades. GOP lawmakers tried to add the position in the fiscal year 2025 budget, but the push was rejected by the House on June 7. 

“A constitutional convention gives the public a chance to change how our state government operates,” he said in an interview Monday afternoon. “If you’re happy with how things are going: vote no. If you think we can do better: vote yes.” 

Sen. Sam Zurier, a Providence Democrat, told Rhode Island Current he would like to see delegates amend the constitution to include a judicially enforceable right to an education. 

“We have in the Senate passed measures to put that measure on the ballot, but the House of Representatives doesn’t agree,” he said. “Sometimes there are certain ideas that are stuck in gridlock and a convention could bring those to the voters.”  

But the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the possibility of a constitutional convention, claiming that it could roll back many of the state’s civil protections. 

“This is not a hypothetical concern,” said Executive Director Steven Brown. “We saw it the last time Rhode Island had a constitutional convention in 1986.” 

Brown was referring to a proposal that would have banned abortions in Rhode Island except in life and death scenarios.  

“There’s no reason to believe that in light of the polarized climate we live in today that similar types of ideologically charged issues will not come out of a convention,” Brown said. “There’s this very utopian view of citizens meeting and coming up with grand ideas, but a constitutional convention is just as political as the General Assembly  – if not more so.” 

The “right to life” amendment cleared the convention, but was defeated at the ballot box, with 66% of voters choosing to reject it. 

Frias called the ACLU’s concerns unfounded, saying that any referendums to ban abortions would likely be struck down as they have in ballot measures across several red states. 

“I think the ACLU is fighting yesterday’s battles instead of focusing on today’s realities,” he said. 

Zurier acknowledged the theoretical risk to holding a constitutional convention, but pointed out any final proposals will have to be approved by voters. 

“I wish my friends at the ACLU had a great trust for the voters,” he said. 

Christopher Shea is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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