Posted by Theodore Landsman on November 07, 2017
Today New Yorkers will vote on whether to hold a New York State Constitutional Convention, often referred to by the shorthand “con con.” The con con issue has fractured both parties along establishment vs activists lines, those who fear it as a threat to entrenched gains against those who see an opportunity to pursue goals that have long been deadlocked at the state level.
Polling on the issue shows the constitutional convention well behind, after a month of well financed campaigning by the “No” campaign. However, it is still worth exploring what the makeup of the convention might be, and why so many groups that stand to benefit from a convention seem to be opposed to it.
The New York Constitution states that if voters approve a convention proposal the state senate districts “shall elect three delegates at the next ensuing general election, and the electors of the state voting at the same election shall elect fifteen delegates-at-large.” However the constitution does not specify what voting rules would be used to elect these delegates.
Several groups pushed for the legislature to vote on more specific rules for electing the delegation before the constitutional convention vote, however, since this push failed, the voting rules are expected to be decided sometime after the vote if the yes campaign wins. They will likely decide between the single vote, a form of “limited voting,” which was the main semi-proportional system advocated before the vote, and winner-take-all block voting (block voting is the most common election method for multi-winner voting in the United States). While the single vote allows less flexibility than ranked choice voting (or the “single transferable vote”), it is a fair representation voting method, and its utility has been proven in a United States elections for promoting better representation of minority viewpoints.
For this blog post, I examined the impacts of the convention based on whether a single vote system (1 vote per voter) or block voting (3 votes per voter in their senate district, 15 votes for the at large delegation) was used, and whether voter behavior was more similar to their national preferences (votes for president in 2016, via DailyKos) or State Senate preference in 2016.
Overall we see that Democrats would carry the majority of the delegation in every scenario, with a significantly larger advantage suggested by partisanship and a more modest advantage suggested by state senate results. While some have suggested gerrymandering in favor of Republicans as a reason to mistrust a senate district allocated convention, Clinton won the median state senate district with 56% of the vote, but senate democrats won it with only 50.1%. This suggested that systematic underperformance, not gerrymandering is responsible for Democrats woes in the state senate. Looking at this trend as it relates to the block voting vs the single vote question, things get even messier.
A semi-proportional method would result in a net loss of seats for Democrats under the partisanship based scenario, since they would be forced to allocate a number of narrow wins proportionally, and proportionally allocate the at-large delegation. Under block voting, they would have the power to win every at-large seat. On the other hand, if we assume state senate results are more determinative, the single vote method would be a net boon for Democrats, since the near tie of Democrats and Republicans in the state senate is not indicative of the proportional breakdown of voters, which more than makes up for the at-large seats lost.
So why are so many state Democrats opposed to a convention they would almost certainly control? While some have expressed fears about the campaign finance environment leading to a Koch brothers-controlled convention, the more measured concern seems to be that a convention would be a waste of finite political resources in a moment with urgent priorities at the national level. There may also be concern that Democratic delegates would overreach and write constitutional amendments that could not win the requisite voter referendum, which happened the last time a convention was called in 1967.
If the polls are right, voters will side with those expressing these concerns, and the constitutional convention push will fail. However, should it succeed, the convention would present an enormous opportunity to reform the state's outdated voting laws, creating opportunities for AVR, same day voter registration, greater flexibility for cities to amend their voting laws, and ranked choice voting.