Repair California has offered a limited Constitutional Convention as the best opportunity for the people of California to step forward and reclaim their state government. While the movement has the support of 70 percent of voters, as well as thousands of volunteers and many public leaders, some naturally express skepticism.
Constitutional conventions have been common throughout U.S. history, but California has not had one in 130 years. This extraordinary lapse of time without a serious citizen-review of government could understandably breed fear. Indeed, such trepidation accompanied the lead up to many of the 232 successful state Constitutional Conventions. For instance, in the 1963 black & white documentary of Michigan’s Constitutional Convention, held in that year, the narrator aptly summarized this unease:
“There had been fears the convention would be too conservative; fears that it would be too liberal; fears that it would be racked by politics…Pro-labor or pro-farmer or pro-business. Favoring the present, trapped in the past, lost in the future…”
Yet Americans are optimists with a propensity to overcome their fears and to emerge from trial and ordeal stronger than before – just as they did in 1963 Michigan, and just as they have done during each of the 232 state constitutional conventions in U.S. history.
Furthermore, a sober analysis of some of the most recent constitutional conventions demonstrates that these fears consistently fail to materialize. When reviewing recent state constitutional conventions it becomes clear that when given the chance, the American people see this venue as something beyond regular politics, and they seem naturally inclined to check partisanship at the door for the sake of carrying out the people’s business.
Constitutional conventioneers have proven particularly willing and capable of making the type of important compromises and decisions that commonly elude regular legislatures. The 1978 Hawaii Convention established term limits for state office holders, and required the legislature to produce an annual balanced budget. Delegates to the 1970 Illinois Convention actually took power from the state capitol and delivered it to local governments, closer to the watchful eyes of the voters. Michigan’s 1963 convention resolved the thorniest of issues: reapportionment for legislative districts.
The ability of delegates to agree on common-sense reforms is often explained vis-a-vis the fundamentally different incentives driving convention delegates vs. regular politicians. Among these are party politics, delegate demographics, and the unique nature of the constitutional convention venue itself.
First, constitutional convention delegates aren’t driven by re-election. As such, delegates aren’t burdened by the incentive to appease a particular party’s activist base, raise money or secure endorsements. For similar reasons, delegates have no electoral incentive to cower from important decisions.
Second, Constitutional Convention delegates are often “outsiders.” The Repair California delegate selection model brings in an equal number of experts and everyday Californians as voting delegates, but prohibits individuals who serve in a state-level elected office, their staff, lobbyists, employees or businesses that rely on state government. This mimics the approach of several states, including Montana. According to the official history of Montana’s 1971 Constitutional Convention:
“The delegates brought none of the acrimony and bitterness to the Convention that sometimes develops between seasoned politicians with preconceived positions on major state issues. Thus, the delegates were able to approach the principle issues before the Convention in an objective manner, and they also avoided a good deal of the pressures to which legislators are subjected. The probable unforeseen result…was a constitutional body relatively free from influence and dedicated to basic changes in Montana’s constitutional framework.”
Finally, conjuring images of powdered wigs and founding fathers and mothers, Constitutional Conventions occupy a special place in the American psyche; a place Americans have historically proven unwilling to spoil with partisan bickering and electoral posturing.
After describing the fears which had preceded Michigan’s march towards its 1963 Convention, the documentary went on to explain how Michiganders eventually reconciled their fears.
“The convention…was not an assemblage of angels. It was a convention of men and women. Taking the best it could agree on for our time and for our people…This was the process. Sometimes calm, sometimes not so calm. Either way, it was the people’s way. It was the way of a free democracy.”