Activist state

State constitutional convention measures stoke partisan fear

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Public anger is simmering in Alaska over the legislature’s failure to address the state’s most radioactive issue — the amount of the check residents are expected to receive from the State’s Oil Wealth Fund. State – Activists are running into a political opportunity: The ability for voters to call a convention to amend the state constitution.

Frustration over the long-running oil audit issue is providing a tailwind to groups seeking to change the constitution to address a range of hot topics, such as restricting abortion and changing the selection process for judges in a way that opponents say could make the process more partisan.

This year’s political turmoil could turn what is usually a neglected voting issue into a high-stakes battle over the direction of the state. A convention would open Alaska’s founding document to any kind of revision, which opponents say is dangerous at a time of deep partisan divisions, culture wars and campaigns fueled by deep-pocketed donors from outside the US. ‘State.

Talking about changing the constitution is “like walking through a dynamite storage room with a lighter. You better know what you’re doing,” said John Coghill, a former conservative state legislator whose father was one of the delegates to Alaska’s original constitutional convention.

Alaska is one of three states where voters will decide this fall whether to call a convention to consider amendments to their constitution. The issue has received little attention in Missouri and has so far generated only mild interest in New Hampshire, where a group opposed to COVID-19 mandates and restrictions has considered launching a campaign to advocate. in favor of a convention. This group, Rebuild NH, has not yet said which amendments it might favor.

A total of 14 states are required to hold periodic elections requiring voters to call a constitutional convention. Delegates usually have carte blanche to propose revisions — or even entirely new constitutions — which would then come back to voters for ratification.

State constitutional conventions called by voters have become increasingly rare. More than 30 such questions have failed since Rhode Island voters allowed one in 1984.

New Hampshire voters haven’t allowed one since 1982. Delegates to that rally debated more than 100 amendments, 10 of which made it to the polls. Voters approved six, including measures that required the legislature to meet every year instead of every two years and to ensure polling places would be accessible to voters with disabilities.

The country is more divided today.

“While at one time a constitutional convention was seen as a way to empower the people and overcome the challenges they saw with the functioning of government, the people no longer have confidence that constitutional conventions will work,” said John Dinan, a politician. science professor at Wake Forest University who studies the subject. “There is a significant fear of uncontrollable conventions or opening Pandora’s box of problems.”

That’s what’s emerging in Alaska, where some groups are taking sides on the issue of who will be on the November ballot.

This year’s vote will follow an expected mid-year ruling by the United States Supreme Court in a case that could seriously erode abortion rights across the country. The Alaska Supreme Court has interpreted the state constitution’s right to privacy to encompass the right to abortion, but many conservatives want to get rid of that interpretation.

The conservative Alaska Family Council said it considers calling a convention one of its top priorities. He supports an amendment saying that nothing in the constitution can be interpreted as protecting a right to abortion. The group also supports issues related to school choice and changes to the judicial selection process.

The existing precedent in the state provides “quite a significant isolation” for Alaskan women “to continue to have reproductive choice,” said Susan Orlansky, acting executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska. But she said her group was worried about the possibility of a convention. A convention carries the risk of possible constitutional changes that could undermine those protections, she said.

A prominent advocate of a convention is Bob Bird, chairman of the Alaska Independence Party, which is one of three recognized political parties in the state and sees itself as a mixture of conservative republicanism, populism and of libertarianism. Among other things, Bird called for changes in the justice system.

Critics of a convention say the heated political environment makes it a bad time to open up the state constitution, but Bird disagrees: “If we didn’t have that environment, it wouldn’t be not even considered. It would be swept away as it has (been) swept away in the past.

The last time the question was on the ballot in Alaska, in 2012, voters rejected the call for a convention by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

Former Republican lawmakers including Coghill, former Democratic mayors and a labor leader have joined a group called Defend Our Constitution to oppose a convention. They worry that deep-pocketed outside interests will try to influence the process and that commercial interests will hold up investment in Alaska while it unfolds.

Bruce Botelho, a Democrat involved with the opposition group at the convention, said there are “a lot of people who are generally angry with the government and this could be their opportunity to vote to express their frustrations with the government. “.

Supporters say fears are overblown and that if voters approve of a convention, the deeply divisive issues are unlikely to go far.

Similar concerns have prevented a constitutional convention at the federal level, which several Republican-led states have proposed in recent years as a way to pass a balanced budget amendment. Those wary of constitutional conventions generally say they are worried about the possibility of rallies turning into free-for-alls — with Democrats seeking to impose spending on welfare programs, for example, and Republicans trying to ban abortion or ban any type of gun control.

Successful constitutional conventions over the past century have been facilitated by bipartisan cooperation, said Justin Dyer, director of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.

“We have a very tense partisan period at the moment,” he said. “The idea of ​​having the goodwill of both parties… it’s hard to know whether we would be able to do that or not.”

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Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri. Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.