Constitutional Convention: Landslide defeat shows labor union strength

ALBANY - Public polling in the weeks before Election Day suggested a constitutional convention was headed for a resounding, 2-to-1 defeat.

But even the landslide predicted by Siena College couldn't match the torrent of dissent that poured in Tuesday.
New York voters rejected a chance to re-write the state's highest governing document at a nearly 5-to-1 clip, with 83 percent of votes against it and 17 percent in favor.

The 2.7 million people who voted against the convention was the highest total on one side of any of the 32 statewide ballot proposals in the last two decades -- including those in presidential election years that more than double total voter turnout in New York.

Opposition was widespread: All 62 counties voted against it.

"I don't think I have ever seen a statewide election 83-17 on anything or anybody," Siena pollster Steve Greenberg said Wednesday. "Our polling showed that as voters learned more (about a convention), they became much more negative."

The blowout defeat was in part a show of strength from the state's powerful labor unions, which had worked for more than a year to drive the "no" vote. They feared a convention could lead to a rollback of worker protections, collective-bargaining rights and pension benefits the state's constitution protects.

Union campaign

The unions pooled together more than $3 million to fund television advertisements, seemingly ubiquitous lawn signs and an extensive get-out-the-vote effort that helped get union members to the polls.

As the results came in Tuesday night, they took a victory lap.

Mario Cilento, president of the NYS AFL-CIO, said the vote was a "defining moment for the labor movement."
"The result of the election is very clear: working men and women understood what was at stake," Cilento said.

Had the question been approved, New York would have began a multi-year process to convene a convention in 2019, where delegates from across the state would have put forward proposals to reshape the state's 60,000-word constitution.

Ultimately, voters would have had to approve any proposals before they took effect.

Supporters of a convention viewed it as an opportunity to force substantive change in a state that has seen high-profile corruption cases at the highest-levels of state government. They said the constitution, which was last subjected to a major rewrite in 1938, was in dire need of an update.

Unified vote

Rarely, however, are voters as unified in New York as they were Tuesday.

Of the 32 statewide ballot proposals since 1997, only once has one side received more than 60 percent of the total ballots cast, including those that skipped the question. About 77 percent of total ballots were against the convention Tuesday, with 16 percent in favor and 7 percent blank.

The low rate of ballots left blank shocked some poll watchers.

The blank ballots Tuesday were just a fraction of the 40 percent left blank when the constitutional convention was last posed in 1997.

And unlike 1997 when traditional level polling machines were used, the question was listed on the back of the ballot this year, meaning voters had to remember to flip their ballots over to weigh in.

In 1997, 929,415 ballots were in favor of a convention, with 1.6 million opposed and 1.7 million left blank.

This year, 553,960 ballots were in favor, 2.7 million were opposed and 233,721 were left blank with absentee ballots and 1 percent of precincts left to be counted, according to the state Board of Elections' unofficial results.

Support was lowest in New York City, though it was still far from low: 73 percent of votes in Manhattan were against the convention, for example. It was one of the lowest marks compared to counties across the state.

Easier argument


Bruce Gyory, a political consultant and adjunct political science professor at the University at Albany, said convention opponents had an easier argument to make in trying to sway the public.

"It's much easier to play to people's concerns that not much will change and a lot of money will be wasted in the process," Gyory said.

"I'm not taking a side, but that's where people were. And then there was a lot more money and organizational support on the opponents' side rather than the proponents' side, though some of the proponents I think are some of the finest minds in the state."

The labor unions backing New Yorkers Against Corruption, the group that led the anti-convention campaign, far outspent supporters of a convention.

The supporters were led by Democratic activist Bill Samuels, who put about $300,000 of his own money into pro-convention efforts.

He said he will now focus his efforts on taking on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whom Samuels frequently criticizes for not doing more to reform Albany's culture, and a group of Democrats allied with Republicans in the Senate.

"The voters said for a variety of reasons that they did not like this methodology (for reforming the constitution) and that given the Trump era, it's too risky," Samuels said. "But voters haven't rejected reform, and now the only alternative left is for us to take on Cuomo and the Senate. I look forward to being part of that."

The question of whether to convene a constitutional convention is on the New York ballot every 20 years.
Christopher Bopst, a Canisius College professor emeritus who pushed for a "yes" vote, told public radio's "The Capitol Pressroom" that he's already looking forward.   

"On to 2037," he said Wednesday.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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