[This page was last updated in November 2010. It is the archive of the campaign leading up to the November 2, 2010 Maryland ballot referendum on whether to convene a state constitutional convention.]
[E]ach generation… [has] a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness.
Marylanders for a State Constitutional Convention (MarylandConCon.org) supports a “Yes” vote on the November 2, 2010 statewide ballot referendum on whether Maryland should convene a state constitutional convention. If you want to change Maryland politics to make elections more competitive and representatives more responsive to you, this is the only item on the ballot that can do that for you. Voting for Ehrlich or O’Malley won’t do that for you. They didn’t make the needed changes in their eight years in office (four for O’Malley and four for Ehrlich). Moreover, they could not even if they wanted to, if only because the legislature would not go along with legislative term limits, an independent legislative redistricting body, genuine legislative transparency and other reforms needed to significantly reduce both special interest control of Annapolis and electoral barriers designed to weaken democratic accountability. Voting yes now is the only chance for you to fix these problems in the next twenty years.
George Mason, one of the drafters of the original U.S. Constitution, explained the need for a constitutional convention mechanism when legislators have a blatant conflict of interest with the public: “It would be improper to require the consent of the [legislature], because they may abuse their power and refuse their consent on that very account.” It was that statement and other similar ones made by others that led the drafters of fourteen state constitutions, including Maryland’s, to include a provision for automatically putting on the ballot a question on whether to convene a constitutional convention.
The November 2 ballot question reads: “Should a constitutional convention be called for the purpose of changing the Maryland Constitution?”
Given that the constitutional convention only has the power to propose constitutional changes subject to voter approval, a more accurate ballot question would have read: “Should a constitutional convention be called for the purpose of proposing changes to the Maryland Constitution that would then be submitted to the electorate for its approval or disapproval by majority vote?” Voters get three chances to influence the con-con process: to vote on whether to convene one, to vote on the delegates to such a convention, and then to vote on any recommendations that the con-con itself votes to put on the ballot.
The ballot question should also have informed voters that a non-vote would be counted as a no-vote. This was the only question on the ballot that employed this voting rule, and it was highly misleading not to inform voters of it. I believe this omission was purposefully done by legislators and their allies to suppress the vote for self-evident reasons: the more non-votes, the less the odds that the con-con referendum would pass, which is the outcome they wanted. This is akin to the common illegal campaign tactic of using robocalls to an opponent’s base of support to encourage them not to vote and thus suppress turnout for the opponent.
For a short history of this type of ballot item in Maryland, see the Baltimore Sun op-ed, Maryland’s Ballot Surprise.
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November 14, 2010
The Washington Post‘s print edition publishes J.H. Snider’s commentary, Give Marylanders the constitutional convention they voted for, arguing that O’Malley should follow through on his campaign promise to support a con-con in Maryland “if that’s what the people want to do.”
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November 13, 2010
The Washington Post’s online edition publishes J.H. Snider’s commentary, Con-con promise comes due for O’Malley, arguing that O’Malley should follow through on his campaign promise to support a con-con in Maryland “if that’s what the people want to do.”
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November 12, 2010
This morning the Maryland State Board of Elections posted the final election results, including all provisional and domestic absentee ballots. The tallies for remaining military and overseas ballots are supposed to be posted by November 22, but there is no chance they will make a difference in the outcome.
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November 8, 2010
The Daily Record publishes a blog post, Do we need a new Maryland Constitution?
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November 7, 2010
Counting of provisional ballots and domestic absentee ballots will be completed by the end of the day November 11 and either posted that evening or on the morning of November 12. Counting of military and overseas ballots will not be complete until November 22. It is thus possible that the election will not be called until November 22.
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November 3, 2010 (updated at 2:00 pm)
As of 10 am, the election was too close to call, with the Baltimore Sun reporting 54.74% for the yes vote and 45.24% for the no vote. The question is not whether the con-con won’t receive a plurality of votes but whether it will receive a majority of votes, given that non-votes count as no votes. Here, absentee ballots may prove crucial.
What can be said so far is that the Maryland con-con appears to have received more popular support than any state con-con ballot referendum in a generation anywhere in the United States. As expected, the other three state con-con referendums–in Iowa, Michigan, and Montana–went down to lopsided defeats. The results may reinvigorate interest in state con-cons among democratic reformers, a group that since the mid-20th century has overwhelmingly abandoned state con-con based democratic reform as hopelessly unlikely and therefore not worth pursuing.
A number of unusual factors may have contributed to the remarkably strong showing of the yes vote in Maryland. Two results need to be explained. First, what appears to be a relatively small non-vote on the ballot. Second, the high yes vote. In the vast majority of elections, the ballot non-vote is not a material consideration. For Maryland’s state con-con, however, it has often proven a far more important political variable than the yes and no votes because a non-vote is treated as a yes vote and non-voting on low profile, low social prestige ballot items such as a state con-con referendums tends to be very high.
The contrast with 1990, the last con-con vote in Maryland, appears to be telling. In 1990, approximately 40.6% supported a yes vote. There were 303,489 yes votes but even more non-votes, 319,031. In contrast, as of 1 pm today and with more than 95% of precincts reporting, there appeared to be only 185,000 non-votes, despite large growth in Maryland’s population during the last twenty years.
On a sample 1990 ballot, the con-con referendum was number ten of eleven ballot propositions–a very, very, obscure downballot location, which fosters a high non-vote. This time it was listed as the first ballot proposition, a much better position to reduce non-votes. The con-con ballot proposition also received far more press coverage in 2010 than in 1990, despite the fact that the press was economically much stronger and Maryland news coverage proportionately better in 1990 than it is in 2010. However, this data only comes from a Nexis and more general online search I conducted. For 1990, many publications still don’t have online archives. This suggests an inherent bias to results from an online search. But even comparing only the Baltimore Sun in 1990 and 2010, we see vastly more coverage of the state con-con in 2010. Much of the most thorough and thoughtful coverage, however, was in the electronic media (especially in Baltimore) and in more obscure publications such as the Baltimore City Paper, MarylandReporter.com, and Daily Record.
Also important is that both Ehrlich and O’Malley appeared to support a “yes” vote in their debate on October 21. In particular, O’Malley said he believes a constitutional convention “can be a very positive thing,” and “If that’s what people want to do, then that’s what we should do.” This comment was picked up by the Associated Press and reported in a high profile article in the Baltimore Sun. Since the public is highly sensitive to elite cues on obscure ballot items, this may have made a significant difference, especially in the Baltimore metro area. What we know is that in recent decades state con-cons have tended to do much better when they have gubernatorial support (state legislature support is usually hopeless, except for a few outlier legislators). I took O’Malley’s and Ehrlich’s statements of support as a cynical ploy not to alienate potential voters on an issue where they had nothing to gain by opposition and which they were confident would go down to defeat, anyway. My guess is that they counted on this obscure part of their debate not getting any press coverage. But I featured it in my press release for the October 22 National Press Club press conference, “Is State Con-Con Phobia Justified?” and the Baltimore Sun appeared to have picked it up.
All-in-all, MarylandConCon.org would like to take some credit for both the amount and nature of much of the press coverage on this issue in Maryland. Most newspaper reporters and editorial writers are as abysmally ignorant of state con-cons as the general public. Even worse, they have almost no historical or constitutional curiosity (the luxury of curiosity tends to be reserved for high profile, high prestige political issues, not state con-cons); they trust their ill-informed gut and get their information from political elites who see a state con-con as an inherent and unpredictable threat to their power.
My initial op-ed on Maryland’s state con-con ballot referendum, “Md’s Ballot Surprise,” which ran in early January 2010, helped get the issue on the public agenda and helped generate a flurry of early news coverage. Most of the dozen or so subsequent print articles on the state con-con cited MarylandConCon.org. But the quantity of state con-con coverage in Maryland, while greater than in Iowa and Montana during this round of state con-con ballot items, is not that unusual. What was unusual is that many of the articles were informed by an unusually high degree of knowledge of state con-con history and constitutional theory. This may be attributed largely to MarylandConCon.org’s efforts. Instead of just focusing on the opinions of political elites and the straw men they love to create for their opponents (who are often portrayed as wild, Yahoo-like social activists) , the reporters looked beyond their usual perspective; that is, constrained by time to the immediate present; constrained by location to, at best, Maryland; and constrained by authoritative political elites as sources who have an inherent conflict of interest on this issue.
Overall, and speaking as someone trained as a political scientist and instructor of American government, I believe this referendum teaches us the limits of what passes for instruction about American Government in America’s high schools and colleges. Not only is the study of local and state government generally disdained, but what is taught would provide virtually no useful background to make sense of a state con-con referendum on a ballot. Whether Maryland’s state con-con referendum ultimately passes or not, this has been a once in a generation experience to teach the public and the press about an obscure but very important part of constitutional democracy.
Best & Worst Press Coverage Awards
Best: For the most thorough, thoughtful, and historically informed news coverage of the Maryland state con-con ballot referendum, the award goes to the Baltimore City Paper‘s Andrea Appleton, Pro and Con: A state constitutional convention comes up for a vote—whether politicians, or voters, want it or not.
Worst: For the laziest and most glib reporting on the Maryland state con-con ballot referendum, the award goes to the Washington Post‘s editorial board for Maryland’s constitutional rewrite (for details, see the October 30 entry below). The Washington Post generally does a world class job covering national politics and high profile local politics such as gubernatorial elections. But when it comes to more obscure subjects deemed of only local interest, the quality of its reporting (but not its writing, which remains unusually high) often drops to that of a small town paper.
–J. H. Snider
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N0vember 3, 2010
The Baltimore Sun publishes: Maryland constitutional convention uncertain.
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October 30, 2010
A Washington Post editorial, Maryland’s constitutional rewrite, comes out against a yes vote. It concludes: “As political spectacle, a convention might be entertaining. As an exercise in problem-solving, it would probably be futile. The last one to take place in Maryland, in 1968, was a flop.” J. H. Snider’s response follows below:
It’s sad that the Post’s editors did so little due diligence before writing this editorial. Yes, they seemed to have read Maryland’s current constitution. But no, they clearly didn’t research the five state con-cons in Maryland history, especially the last one in 1967, which they trash. In reality, the last one in 1967 produced a beautifully drafted, slimmed down constitution. Even opponents of a yes vote on the con-con don’t dispute that. Moreover, the delegates to that convention (less than 10% of whom were incumbent legislators) conducted their work in a statesmanlike and transparent way. Contrast that with the current legislature!
The delegates’ fatal mistake was to put their proposals on the ballot for an up-or-down vote rather than divide them into separate amendments, which has proven a much better political strategy for success when recommending complex constitutional changes to the public. The newspaper editorials at the time, including the Post, strongly endorsed the revised constitution proposed by the con-con, whose members were confident until the end that voters would approve it, partly because of the favorable newspaper coverage. But the con-con only existed to draft ballot propositions for public approval and disbanded when that job was done. It had no money to explain and promote its positions to the public. In contrast, the opposition, led by incumbent politicians, was well funded.
In addition to cleaning up obsolete and needless constitutional language, the con-con proposed eliminating obscure and obsolete elected offices, such as Orphan’s Court (a very important office in the 17th century, when parents died young and their many young children needed care). It also proposed switching from multi to single member legislative districts. These proposals infuriated the effected incumbent officials, including influential officials in local election boards, who orchestrated a negative campaign focused on the most controversial parts of the con-con’s proposal. The public then focused on those features of the proposal.
Rural politicians didn’t like the plan because moving to one-person, one-vote meant giving urban areas more power. Baltimore politicians didn’t like it because they tended to live near each other, so moving from three to single member districts would mean 2 of 3 would be out of a job and safe incumbents would have to compete against each other. Thus, in the last day of the campaign the white politicians drove around Baltimore’s white neighborhoods with speakers blaring (a type of old-fashioned political campaign we no longer see), telling the whites, who were already fearful of the growing power of blacks in Baltimore, that the proposed constitution would reduce their power. In Anne Arundel County, where I live, the pro-segregation white council did much the same.
In the end, many of the carefully deliberated policies proposed by the con-con were eventually passed by the legislature. But for the Post to assert that the General Assembly would propose legislative term limits or an independent redistricting process is absurd and disregards a wealth of highly regarded political science research. For example, more than 70% of voters support legislative term limits, but pigs will fly long before Maryland’s legislature would ever impose term limits on itself. Similarly, the Post evinced no irony when, on October 31, the day following its con-con editorial, it endorsed California and Florida’s legislative redistricting ballot propositions. The reason this is remarkable is that those redistricting propositions were created by the constitutional ballot initiative, a constitution amending option that both Florida and California have but Maryland lacks. A constitutional ballot initiative and con-con serve a similar constitutional function: they both allow the public to bypass the legislature when the legislature has a conflict of interest with the public. But unlike about half of U.S. states, Maryland lacks any type of ballot initiative at the state level. In today’s editorial opposing a yes vote on the con-con referendum, the Post argued that meaningful redistricting reform in Maryland could come via the legislature. But the only redistricting plans it endorses are in states with the initiative, which bypass the legislature. If you want meaningful redistricting reform in Maryland (and with much more public deliberation than comes with an initiative), a con-con is your only option.
The Post, by focusing on highly contentious social issues, betrays a lack of understanding of why the Founders created a con-con process. It was, as delegate George Mason argued, to serve as a safety valve when elected officials had a blatant conflict of interest with the electorate. Indeed, this was the cause of the 1967 con-con. For decades Maryland’s legislature had resisted redistricting to comply with the law of one-person, one-vote. Only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that Maryland legislative districting was violating the U.S. Constitution did the Governor support a con-con.
The con-con process gives you three votes to make sure the con-con acts in your interest, starting with the vote on November 2 concerning whether to convene a con-con. If you say yes, you get to vote for each delegate in a competitive election at the next general election. Then you get to vote up or down on anything the con-con proposes. All the con-con-can do is propose items for you to put on the ballot.
As for the cost, it would most likely be less than 1:100,000 of the sum (more than $640 billion) the legislature spends over a 20 year period. If you think Maryland has a significant democratic deficit and that con-con proposals would be likely to reduce it by even only 1%, the return on a con-con would be more than 1,000:1. Of course, no outcomes are guaranteed; a con-con is still a gamble. But it is a gamble highly stacked in the public’s favor, which is why incumbents and special interests are so fearful of one. If you vote against this con-con, you won’t have another opportunity to convene one for another twenty years.
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October 27, 2010
The Associated Press publishes: Constitutional convention question on Md. ballot.
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October 26, 2010
Hourlong segment on WEAA Radio ‘s Marc Steiner Show (88.9 FM ) discussing the pros and cons of voting to convene a Maryland Constitutional Convention with Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin and iSolon.org President J.H. Snider.
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October 24, 2010
The Baltimore Sun publishes: Voters will decide whether to call a constitutional convention.
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October 22, 2010
iSolon.org hosts a briefing and discussion at the National Press Club, where leading state constitutional scholars discuss the state constitutional convention referendums on the Nov. 2 ballots in Maryland, Michigan, Montana, and Iowa. See Is State Con-Con Phobia Justified? The event was reported on in the October 25, 2010 issue of the Daily Record: Experts: Md. constitutional convention unlikely.
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October 22, 2010
The Baltimore Sun publishes the following poll results concerning support for a con-con.
The question: “Every 20 years the state’s voters are asked whether a constitutional convention should be called for the purpose of changing the Maryland Constitution. If the election were held today, would you vote for or against a constitutional convention?”
The results (from a random survey with 769 respondents):
Not Sure: 29%
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October 19, 2010
The Examiner publishes: A citizen’s constitutional right to rewrite the Maryland Constitution.
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October 13, 2010
The Maryland Reporter publishes Rewriting Maryland constitution is up to voters, but not many know, including an extensive discussion of some of the obsolete sections of the Maryland Constitution.
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October 13, 2010
The Baltimore City Paper publishes Pro and Con: A state constitutional convention comes up for a vote—whether politicians, or voters, want it or not. This article includes the best available online history of the 1967-1968 Maryland con-con. The definitive history is John Wheeler and Melissa Kinsey’s Magnificent Failure: The Maryland Constitutional Convention of 1967-1968, New York: National Municipal League, 1970. The most questionable piece of information in the article is the cost estimate for another Maryland con-con. The cost estimate has traditionally been a highly politicized number. Opponents always try to make it as high as possible, which allows them to avoid more politically embarrassing questions. In Montana this year, the cost estimate for a state con-con is around $2.5 million (about a tenth of the estimate used in this article). In British Columbia, a province many times larger geographically than Maryland, a group of 161 met for a year in 2005 to propose constitutional changes and place them on the ballot. It cost $5.5 million.
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October 12, 2010
The Huffington Post publishes J.H. Snider and G. Alan Tarr’s A Historic Year for State Con-Cons. 2010 is a historic year for state c0n-cons because never before in U.S. history have so many state con-con referendums been on the ballot at one time. The article also discusses some of the confusion and misinformation associated with state con-cons.
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October 11, 2010
Stateline publishes Four States to weigh calls for constitutional convention, a status report on the con-con referendums on the ballot in four states on November 2, 2010.
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October 10, 2010
The Baltimore Sun editorializes against a “yes” vote. Last Wednesday J.H. Snider spent a half hour discussing the referendum with a half dozen members of the Baltimore Sun‘s editorial board and was disappointed that his powers of persuasion couldn’t overcome all their objections. The Baltimore Sun sometimes publishes an online only and print version of its editorials. The online only one was published on October 8, and J.H. Snider commented on some of the points he would have liked its author to have considered more carefully.
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September 22, 2010
The Baltimore Sun publishes J.H. Snider’s commentary, The road to term limits in Maryland: A constitutional convention is the state’s best chance for reform, arguing that term limits illustrates the type of democratic reform issue where a state constitutional convention is a more viable mechanism of reform than the Maryland General Assembly.
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August 3, 2010
J.H. Snider discusses Maryland’s constitutional convention ballot item at the 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, held in San Francisco, California from July 30 to August 3, 2010. A poll of the audience in attendance, including leading democratic reform advocates, found remarkable ignorance of the history of state constitutional conventions.
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July 14, 2010
Accompanying the Washington Post‘s July 5, 2010 article below was a poll asking readers whether they would support a yes vote on the November 2, 2010 ballot. The poll was unscientific in that only a self-selected group of readers answered it. I’ve checked the poll several times during the past week and only a few people added their votes after the initial group that did so when the article came out. The poll question reads: “Should the state of Maryland hold a constitutional convention?” As of July 14, 2010, 238 people voted, with the results:
In addition to the poll, the article contained a link to the various sections of Maryland’s Constitution and asked readers to write comments on the Constitution suggesting changes. The Post then said it would “highlight some of our readers’ proposals later this week.” Unfortunately, no such article appears to have been published, and the comments are not available on the website.
Source: How would you change the Maryland Constitution, accessed July 14, 2010.
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July 5, 2010
The Washington Post discusses revising Maryland’s state constitution and convening a state constitutional convention in a front page story: Md. to vote in November on whether to hold constitutional convention. MarylandConCon.org founder, J.H. Snider, is quoted and used as a primary source for the article.
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July 1, 2010
The new law mandating that the question whether or not to convene a state constitutional convention be placed on the November 2, 2010 ballot becomes effective today. In an article highlighting the most important laws becoming effective in Maryland on July 1, 2010, the Baltimore Sun reports: “ A law enabling voters to choose this fall whether they want to convene a convention to rip up and redo the state Constitution also takes effect today” (see New state laws take effect July 1, Baltimore Sun, June 30, 2010).
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April 18, 2010
J. H. Snider’s commentary, Maryland’s Fake Open Government, published in the Washington Post on April 18, 2010, describes the conflict of interest Maryland’s elected officials have in passing and enforcing open government laws. It also proposes simple revisions to Maryland’s Constitution to address this problem. The commentary follows:
Maryland’s Fake Open Government
By J.H. Snider
Sunday, April 18, 2010; C05
Throughout the world, democracy has more legitimacy than authoritarianism. That’s why so many rulers profess more adherence to democratic norms than they practice. Classic illustrations include Russia, Iran and Venezuela, which political scientists characterize as “facade,” “pseudo” and “fake” democracy. America lacks such blatant democratic fakery, but less obvious forms can still thrive.
Fake transparency occurs when officials seek the democratic legitimacy but not the accountability that comes with open government. Fortunately, new information technology, which allows public records to be posted online the moment they are created, can deter such practices.
Laws requiring transparency are most effective in fostering democratic accountability when they force disclosure of politically controversial decisions. Unfortunately, right-to-know laws in Maryland and elsewhere tend to be weakest on exactly this type of access.
Over the years, I’ve made many requests for such information at all levels of government. Although federal transparency is hardly perfect, my worst experiences with government secrecy have been at the local level. Consider my experiences with the implementation of Maryland’s right-to-know laws in Anne Arundel County, where I live.
— To find out how my County Council member voted during her term, I had to identify myself, pay $400 (25 cents a page for four years of written minutes) and endure an inquisition by council staff members who assumed that I had to be running for council.
— To find out how much county public employees are paid (including benefits), I had to identify myself and endure harassing phone calls from employees (whom the public information officer alerted to my request), and then I didn’t even receive the information I was entitled to under Maryland law.
— In response to my request for a copy of a printed public document, I was told that to save the county money, I had to access it online. But I was not told that the controversial part of the document was omitted from the online version.
— When I alerted Maryland’s Open Meetings Law Compliance Board that the chair of a public body had held a special meeting to discuss controversial issues without the legally required public notice, the chair’s mere claim to have sent such notice — backed by no corroborating written evidence or testimony — was deemed adequate to satisfy the law.
— While investigating whether members of a public body were violating the spirit of Maryland’s Open Meetings Law by conducting business via e-mail, I discovered that getting an answer to that question was impossible because the county destroys centralized e-mail records after 30 days and Maryland’s Public Information Act allows officials 30 days to respond to a request.
Admittedly, my county government has an award-winning Web site and happily provides tons of noncontroversial information. But in a democracy, the test of right-to-know laws is accessibility to the information that public officials don’t want to give you.
To address the problem of fake transparency, the simple principle that public equals online should be adopted. A bill recently introduced in Congress, the Public Online Information Act of 2010, attempts to do this for the federal government and points the way for local governments, too.
During the just-concluded session of the Maryland General Assembly, a half-dozen government transparency bills were introduced (and failed to pass), but none was remotely as ambitious or simple in aspiration. The default transparency standard in the state should be that all documents subject to a Public Information Act request should be online and free to the public from the moment of their creation. Indeed, this transparency principle should be incorporated in the state constitution.
A key feature of the federal transparency bill is its separation of public record creation from control. Until now, the only practical option was to give the foxes control of the chicken coop; that is, creators of public records also had control of access to them. But with the advent of the Internet, this argument no longer holds. After a record is created, it can now be transferred to an independent body for immediate archiving and posting online, including automatic redaction of confidential information. In Maryland, the Maryland State Archives could take on such a role. This checks-and-balances principle of separating public record creation from control should also be made part of Maryland’s constitution.
Unfortunately, practical politicians have an incentive to care about the appearance but not the reality of open government. As a result, they have been slow to exploit the potential of new information technologies to reduce fake transparency and strengthen democracy. It is the job of voters to demand that they do so.
The writer is president of iSolon.org.
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April 2, 2010
At the Almost 7:30 Club meeting held in Annapolis, Maryland, an audience member asked Kumar Barve, Majority Leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, whether he supported a yes vote on the November 2, 2010 ballot item to convene a constitutional convention. He replied: “I oppose a state constitutional convention. It is unnecessary. We already have a good constitution. Changing it would endanger Maryland’s Triple A bond rating. As a matter of principle, I’m also opposed to the initiative. Look what it has done to California.”
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March 18, 2010
The Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College released its semi-annual public opinion survey (see pages 12 and 21). The survey was sent to 640 randomly selected citizens aged 18 and above in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. For the first time, the survey included the following question:
Every 20 years, the Maryland General Assembly is required to include on the ballot a question about holding a constitutional convention to revise the state?s constitution. Would you favor or oppose holding such a convention at this time?
The results were:
Don’t know enough: 9%
No answer: 5%
In other words, a plurality but not a majority of voters supported a constitutional convention. However, with a margin of error of 4%, it was a statistical dead heat.
Even more interesting was the cross tabulation including ideology: 58% of liberals but only 40% of conservatives favored convening a state constitutional convention. Moderates, the middle category, came in at 42%. The results caught me by surprise because I would have thought that conservatives, who are in the minority in Maryland, would have been the strongest supporters. Generally, it is members of the minority party who are the strongest supporters of democratic reform. My only explanation for this result right now is that classical conservatives generally are more suspicious of government change than progressives, and the purpose of a state constitutional convention would be to change the status quo.
My guess is that once the special interests and incumbent party leaders–the two groups with the most to lose from convening a state constitutional convention–begin to publicly oppose a yes vote, these numbers could dramatically change.
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February 9, 2010
Hourlong segment on WYPR Radio ‘s Midday program (88.1 FM )discussing the pros and cons of a Maryland Constitutional Convention with iSolon.org President J.H. Snider, Maryland Senate Minority Leader Allan Kittleman, and Maryland Legislative Counsel Dan Friedman.
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February 2, 2010
The Washington Examiner runs a brief article written by the Associated Press on Maryland’s con-con ballot referendum:
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January 8, 2010
J. H. Snider’s commentary, Md’s Ballot Surprise (scanned copy of the print version; click here for the online version), published in the Baltimore Sun on January 8, 2010, marks the inaugural event for this website. As November 2, 2010 approaches, this website will be updated increasingly frequently. The Baltimore Sun commentary follows:
Md.’s ballot surprise
Voters in November will have a rare opportunity to shape the state’s constitution
By J.H. Snider
January 8, 2010
This November, Marylanders will have a once-in-a-generation chance to shake up the political process. Yet few know about it, and even fewer are talking about it.
Maryland’s Constitution stipulates that, every 20 years, the General Assembly must place on the general election ballot a binding referendum asking voters whether they want to convene a constitutional convention. If it passes, it could be the most politically momentous event in Maryland during 2010.
Since the U.S. was founded, states have convened more than 230 constitutional conventions, five of them in Maryland. During the 20th century, Marylanders had six ballot opportunities to convene one. Three times supporters outnumbered opponents, but only once was a convention convened because Maryland’s Constitution requires a majority, not a plurality, of voters. In 1950, for example, 200,439 voters supported a convention while only 56,998 opposed it, but the referendum failed to pass because 388,284 voters in the election left the ballot item blank.
The only convention referendum to win the necessary votes occurred in 1966. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Maryland’s legislative districting violated the U.S. Constitution’s one-person, one-vote requirement. For example, many rural legislators had far fewer constituents than urban legislators. Maryland’s governor, over the legislature’s initial objections, strongly supported holding a convention. Convention delegates, elected in a special election, convened during 1967-68 and placed their proposal on the ballot for ratification in 1968. Opponents successfully focused public attention on the proposal’s most controversial features, and it was defeated – although many of the proposed changes were subsequently adopted through constitutional amendments.
Constitutional conventions have been held for many reasons, including expanding white male suffrage (the early 19th century), expanding black suffrage (the late 19th century), expanding direct democracy (the early 20th century), and reapportioning legislative districts (the mid-20th century).
One common argument in their favor during the 20th century in Maryland was the current constitution’s style, which is suitable for lawyers and lobbyists, not average citizens. Many Marylanders have read the U.S. Constitution, but few have read the Maryland Constitution, which at approximately 47,000 words is more than five times as long as the U.S. Constitution.
Another justification for a convention – one that I prefer – is that it is the preferred venue to propose democratic reforms where elected officials have a blatant conflict of interest with the public. Such issues include term limits, redistricting, campaign finance, ballot access and legislative transparency. When no conflict of interest exists, the constitutional amendment process, controlled by the legislature, is satisfactory.
The conflict-of-interest rationale for constitutional conventions goes back to the framers of the U.S. Constitution. As George Mason of Virginia explained the need, “It would be improper to require the consent of the National Legislature, because they may abuse their power and refuse their consent on that very account.”
Another remedy for legislative conflicts of interest is the ballot initiative, by which citizens can put items on the ballot that incumbents oppose. But Maryland is not one of the 24 states that use ballot initiatives. In any case, a constitutional convention, if designed well, can be superior to a ballot initiative, partly because elected rather than self-appointed representatives craft the proposals and because the process is more transparent and deliberative.
In 2010, the best argument for a constitutional convention could be the redistricting triggered by the next decennial U.S. Census taken in April. Maryland’s legislators will no doubt use redistricting to entrench themselves, creating partisan and pro-incumbent gerrymanders that disenfranchise moderates and suppress political competition. A convention could propose an independent body, such as a redistricting jury or bipartisan commission, to constrain gerrymanders.
Like any other democratic process, a constitutional convention is no panacea. Delegates would be elected in districts that mimic the size and district geography of Maryland’s current General Assembly, and incumbents and special interests would be sure to influence the elections to favor their own interests. Nevertheless, no better vehicle is available for voters to break up Maryland’s incumbent protection racket. And if voters don’t like the convention’s recommendations, they need not ratify them.
In 1967-8, the convention delegates were elected in a nonpartisan election, with candidates trying to distance themselves from the elected legislature’s partisan, special interest and pro-incumbent politics. The nonpartisan election system should be retained, although enhanced with instant runoff voting.
Mobilizing the public on democratic reform issues is well known to be very difficult. Thus, compelling reasons, such as combating gerrymandering, must be found to capture the public’s attention. Those who seek to create a more democratic political system in Maryland should now begin the process of educating the public about the issues at stake in this once-in-a-generation opportunity.
–J.H. Snider, a resident of Severna Park, is the president of iSolon.org and has written widely on democratic reform. For more information, see www.MarylandConCon.org.