Toward the bottom of the Nov. 8 ballot, Missourians will find a question asking whether they would like to call a convention to amend the state’s constitution. Thanks to a state law, that question must be asked every 20 years. But what exactly is a state constitutional convention? And why would Missourians vote for it?
They haven’t in the past. Since 1962, constitutional convention invitations on statewide ballots have been turned down every two decades. In the last vote, in 2002, 65% of voters said “no.” Since the question has been asked, Missourians have never voted to hold a constitutional convention.
Unlike other ballot questions, the invitation to a constitutional convention doesn’t require a citizen initiative petition or a vote of the legislature. Still, the state hasn’t actually held a convention since the 1940s.
Voters in New Hampshire and Alaska will also be voting on a state constitutional convention this November. In total, 44 states have laws that dictate how a constitutional convention can be called.
If the majority of voters cast a “yes” vote in Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson would call for an election of delegates to be sent to the state constitutional convention. Members of the legislature, the governor and most government officials would not be allowed to be delegates.
Instead, local parties would nominate one delegate for each state Senate district, and the two top vote-getters, presumably a Republican and a Democrat, would serve as delegates. Fifteen nonpartisan delegates would also be selected.
At the convention held as the result of a 1942 vote, 41 delegates were lawyers, 26 were from large metro areas, seven were farmers and six were newspaper publishers or editors, according to a 2018 essay on the convention published by the Show-Me Institute.
Robynn Kuhlmann, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Missouri, said the nomination process could get muddied by outside influence.
“There may be a lot of worry, due to the undue influence of groups and a political process,” Kuhlmann said on a podcast called Democracy on the Move. “As we’ve seen, during primaries, it’s questionable as to how much influence party leaders really have these days. Sometimes we can see these ideological differences and have extreme individuals emerge without the backing of the political parties because a lot of it has to do with, of course, the groups that are supporting those individuals.”
There would be few rules for how the convention would be held, other than that amendments would pass by a majority vote.
Delegates would be able to propose as many amendments as they like, but they would only make it into the constitution after voters give another round of approvals to the possible changes.
Why would Missouri go for a constitutional convention this year?
This year’s ballot measure has generated little notice, although a small effort dubbed “Say Yes to Democracy”, led by grassroots activists in the state is campaigning in support of a “yes” vote on the measure. The group has not yet been required to file a campaign finance report.
Some Democrats around the state support the measure and cite recent decisions by lawmakers, such as the state’s near-total ban on abortion, to justify a constutional convention.
Others point to the length of the state constitution, the amount of times it has been amended and the outdated nature of some of its provisions as a rationale for an update.
“There’s a variety of amendments that no longer apply, and provisions that no longer apply either. One being, of course, defining marriage between a man and woman — that’s still in it. There’s other regulations, such as regulating bingo,” Kuhlmann said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Missouri has the fifth longest constitution of all the U.S. states, following Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. It has nearly 65,500 words, compared to the U.S. Constitution’s roughly 7,600 words.
Missouri’s fourth and current constitution was adopted in 1945 after the last convention took place. It has been amended at least 119 times, and includes recent measures like the legalization of medical marijuana and expansion of Medicaid — both of which were added as the result of voter initiatives.
Changes passed by voters as the result of a constitutional convention would be vetoproof, meaning the legislature or the governor could not remove or alter them.
Some supporters of the convention question also point to proposed changes to the initiative petition process that were introduced by lawmakers in recent legislative sessions. The proposed changes, which so far haven’t become law, would increase the threshold of initial voter support required for a question to qualify for the ballot.
Supporters of a “yes” vote say the convention would present an opportunity to amend state statute to do things like reinstate access to abortion. But they also see the opportunity for the process to go awry, especially given the partisan divide that dominates policymaking in Missouri.
“The elephant in the room right now, and which has been for the past 10 years, of course, is the extreme political polarization that’s occurred,” Kuhlmann said.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a period of time in which there’s no room to agree to disagree and move forward. If you do have a constitutional convention with these types of hard lines drawn on both sides of the aisle, you really question whether or not it can actually get done.”