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What you should know about the NY constitutional convention vote

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It's a question New Yorkers are asked every 20 years, and it could reshape state government. 

On Nov. 7, voters will consider whether the state should hold a constitutional convention. It has been a half-century since the last convention was held. 

The last time voters were asked the constitutional convention question was in 1997. By a nearly 650,000-vote margin, New Yorkers opted not to allow a convention to proceed. 

What is it?

A constitutional convention would allow New Yorkers to propose amendments to the constitution. The constitution mandates that voters are asked every 20 years whether there should be a new convention held to consider amendments. The last convention was held in 1967. 

If a majority votes yes, the constitutional convention will be held in 2019. If a majority votes no, a convention won't be held and the question won't be asked again until 2037. 

How would it work?

If voters approve a constitutional convention, there would be a second vote in 2018 to select delegates. Each of New York's 63 state Senate districts would elect three delegates. Statewide voters would choose an additional 15 at-large delegates. 

The delegates would receive compensation for their service. They would earn $79,500 — the same salaries paid to members of the state Legislature. They would also have the authority to hire officers and staff for the convention. 

The convention would be held in April 2019 at the Capitol in Albany. Any amendments adopted by a majority of delegates at the convention must receive final approval from voters. The statewide vote would be held at least six weeks after the conclusion of the convention. 

Any amendments approved by voters would go into effect Jan. 1, 2020. 

Who supports it? 

One of the leading advocates for a constitutional convention is Bill Samuels, a longtime progressive activist and supporter of Democratic causes. 

Samuels and other constitutional convention backers view the Nov. 7 vote as an opportunity to reform state government. 

Voting no, Samuels said, "means giving up." 

Several New York interest groups support holding a constitutional convention. The list includes Citizens Union, a leading good government group, the League of Women Voters and the New York State Bar Association. 

Some elected officials are on board, too. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick was featured in a video released last week by NY People's Convention, a group created by Samuels to build support for the convention. 

Myrick, a Democrat, called a constitutional convention "the best avenue for reform."

There are Republicans who support a constitutional convention, too. Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb has been one of the most outspoken lawmakers about the need to hold a convention. 

"The beauty and necessity of a constitutional convention lies in its ability to reform the system and empower the people of New York to facilitate needed change," Kolb, R-Canandaigua, wrote in February. "Voter empowerment is a part of the very fabric of who we are as a nation. There is no more effective way to engage the public than a constitutional convention, and there is no place that needs it more than Albany." 

NY People's Convention outlines at least a dozen issues that could be addressed a constitutional convention. The list includes strengthening public worker protections by preventing changes to employee pension contributions, an amendment giving equal rights to women and the establishment of an environmental bill of rights. 

The group proposes other changes which have been discussed for years. Electoral reform has been debated, but the state Legislature hasn't updated the state's voting procedures. NY People's Convention proposes allowing early voting, same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration. 

Ethics reform would be a high priority. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders have been reluctant to adopt major reforms. There have been small changes, but nothing that would dramatically reshape how state government operates. 

NY People's Convention supports amending the constitution to establish a full-time state Legislature with strict rules on outside income, lower campaign contribution limits and ban donations from any individual or entity doing business with the state. 

"If you want reform, you have to vote for the constitutional convention," Samuels said. "A yes vote is a vote to empower the people of New York to take the power from Cuomo and Heastie and Flanagan and really fix our state, make it a proud model for the rest of the nation." 

Who's against it? 

"Politics makes strange bedfellows." That famous saying best describes the large coalition of interest groups, labor unions and political parties that are urging New Yorkers to vote no on Nov. 7. 

The state Conservative Party and Working Families Party are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both oppose holding a constitutional convention. Groups on opposing sides of the abortion debate also support a no vote.

Mike Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party, said he opposes holding a constitutional convention because of the cost. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has estimated that it will cost $50 million to hold a convention. Critics of the convention believe the cost could exceed $100 million. 

"I just think it's a waste of taxpayers' money," Long said. "I think it will become a boondoggle." 

For others, the delegate selection process is cause for concern. If a majority of New Yorkers support calling a constitutional convention, delegates will be elected in 2018. There will be three delegates from each of the state's 63 Senate districts and 15 at-large delegates from throughout the state. 

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the delegate election is "rigged."

"Our state Senate districts have been drawn based on extreme partisan political gerrymandering and racial gerrymandering which makes the process not one that is likely to have delegates that reflect the will of the people," she said. 

Some organizations oppose the constitutional convention because it would open up the document to extensive changes. Lieberman said there are issues the New York Civil Liberties Union would like to address, but she doesn't believe renegotiating the entire constitution is the right approach. 

Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, agrees. 

"A wholesale rewriting leaves the process open to just amazing abuses," he said. 

King, like Lieberman, also worries about how delegates would be selected and what that would mean for gun rights in New York. He believes the delegates would reflect the makeup of the state Legislature. 

"It's going to be controlled by downstate liberals and they do not represent the people of upstate New York," he said. 

Labor groups oppose the constitutional convention for a variety of reasons. At the top of the list: They fear a constitutional convention could put public employee pensions at risk. 

Samuels dismissed this claim as a "joke." He said pension protections in the state constitution were added at the 1938 convention. 

Andrew Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers, said in September that while collective bargaining rights are a concern, labor unions also believe it would be costly to hold a convention. 

"It's very expensive. It could be hundreds of millions of dollars," he said. "The state could spend that much more wisely." 

How to vote

The constitutional convention question — "Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?" — will appear on the back of paper ballots. 

There are two bubbles: one for yes and another for no. There have been social media posts claiming that if you don't choose either option that it counts as a yes vote. That's false. If you don't take a position on either option, you won't have a vote registered for that question. 

Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.