Missourians show little interest in constitutional reviews

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri is one of only 14 states that periodically give voters the chance to call a convention to rewrite or amend their state's constitution.

In Missouri, the constitutional convention question automatically goes on the ballot every 20 years, including this Nov. 5.

Among Missouri's neighbors, Illinois, Iowa and Oklahoma also routinely vote on whether to hold a convention. Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, said no state has held a constitutional convention in recent years.

Of the handful of states that have convention provisions, only Missouri and New Hampshire voters will decide such questions this year.

As has been the case in Missouri, New Hampshire Assistant Secretary of State Karen Ladd said the ballot measure has generated little debate in her state.

"There really hasn't been a whole lot of information put out about it," Ladd said.

New Hampshire voters consider the convention question every 10 years. The proposal was narrowly defeated its last time out, in 1992, with 50.8 percent opposition. Voters approved the measure in 1982, and a convention was held two years later. However, the delegates simply submitted some proposed amendments for voter ratification rather than doing a complete constitutional rewrite.

In Missouri, the convention question failed by wide margins the previous two times on the ballot, in 1962 and 1982. The few long-time political observers who remember those votes say the issue garnered scant attention each time.

Dr. Tom Simpson, a political science professor at Missouri Southern State College in Joplin, is one of the only Missourians to stump for authorization of a convention this year. Simpson has spoken to various community groups about the need for a new state constitution and wrote a four-part series of newspaper columns on the issue for the Joplin Globe.

Simpson said the current charter, ratified by voters in 1945, has served the state well but also has a number of major flaws resulting from changing times and scores of piecemeal amendments added over the years.

"This constitution has been in place for almost 60 years," Simpson said. "It is time to jazz it up and review it."

Among the changes Simpson advocates are the elimination of term limits for elected officials and abolishment of voter initiative.

Term limits, he said, prevent citizens from electing representatives of their choosing after they have served an arbitrary period of time and will result in a dearth of experience in the General Assembly.

The initiative process, whereby voters can bypass the legislature to put measures on the ballot, has been co-opted by special interest groups and too often results in bad laws and constitutional provisions, Simpson said.

Perhaps his most interesting suggestion is to call for replacing Missouri's two-chamber General Assembly with a unicameral legislature.

Whereas in the United States Congress, each state enjoys equal representation in the Senate while seats in the House of Representatives are distributed based on population, federal court rulings in the 1960s said that all state legislative seats must be apportioned based on population. Simpson said such rulings negated the need for bicameral statehouses. At present, Nebraska has the only unicameral legislature.

If voters authorize a convention, an election to select delegates would be held within three to six months. Any proposed amendments or new constitution produced at a convention would be subject to voter ratification.


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