Friday, February 12, 2010

Convention Fever

By Eric Luedtke.

The Baltimore Sun ran an article last week mentioning a little known fact: this fall, as required in our state constitution, a question will appear on the ballot asking voters if they want to hold a convention to revise said constitution. It’s really a testament to the people who wrote the current Maryland Constitution in 1867 that they would require such a thing. Even the Constitution of the United States, while it does allow for the never-used possibility of calling a constitutional convention, does not require the government to check in with voters periodically and see if they want things changed.

Predictably, some of the first people who have come out in favor of a convention are perched precariously on the right wing of state politics. One of their arguments in favor of a convention is, and I’m not kidding you here, the need to ban speed cameras. Yes, speed cameras, which somehow violate our fundamental and inalienable rights. Because American patriots fought, bled, and died on the fields of Bunker Hill and Brooklyn so that I could drive as fast as I want. Really, it’s true.

If you sense disgust in my writing, you aren’t imagining it.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as right now in state politics the right wing is largely relegated to joke status, even by many Republicans. And I guess that to them, any opportunity for change might seem like an opportunity to gain some measure of power. But what’s sad is that if the debate about this ballot question becomes dominated by such voices, it’s possible that legitimate questions of government which should be debated won’t be. There are serious questions we should be asking ourselves about how we govern our state, real issues that might need to be addressed, and should at least be mulled over.

In the normal course of things, we sometimes gloss over these issues. Our leaders shrug their shoulders and go on with the daily tasks of governance, because things are the way they are and it’s no use wishing they were different. And the rest of us, the general citizenry, when we aren’t so disgusted by the latest scandal that we’ve tuned out politics entirely, rarely take the time to think about changing things. It’s too much work, and we have a lot of other things that take up our time.

So this ballot question provides us an opportunity to ask some fundamental questions about how we run our state. Personally, I think a convention is a good idea, and I’ll be voting for it, if only because I believe that any democracy should periodically look inward, reflect on how it runs, and make the necessary changes to run more smoothly. But whether the ballot question passes or not, I hope that it inspires a debate about some of the questions below:

1. Should we have such a powerful executive?

I’m referring here to the office of Governor, not to any current or former holder of that office. Maryland has one of the most powerful executive branches in the state. The Governor has tremendous control over the budget, which can’t be added to by the legislature. He also, as a member of the Board of Public Works, has tremendous power to cut the budget with virtually no input from elected legislators. Should one man or woman have that much power?

2. Should the legislature be more representative?

Over time, as a result of population growth, a legislature with a set number of seats will naturally see an increase in the population of each district. If we presume that an ideal democracy is one in which a legislator is able to effectively communicate with their constituents, then we really have to question whether our current legislature is able to do that. Why? In 1972, when the current number of seats in the legislature was created by constitutional amendment, there were approximately 85,000 people in each district. Today, there are approximately 120,000. That’s a lot of people for any legislator to get to know. A constitutional convention could divide each Senatorial district into three separate single-member House districts, so that each member of the House would represent about 40,000 people. Conveniently, this would also eliminate the possibility of a district’s delegation being dominated by one part of that district.

3. Should the legislature be year-round?

The vast majority of our legislators are people who are able to take a three month leave of absence from their normal jobs and still feed their families. This is not the position of the average Marylander, to say the least. I also think it does a disservice to the citizens of Maryland that the debate over so many bills ends up being rushed because of the short duration of our legislative session.

4. How should apportionment happen?

I’m a pretty partisan guy, but even more than I believe in the Democratic Party, I believe in democracy. State legislative districts should be drawn to be representative of regions, of towns, of the people therein. They should not be drawn for partisan ends, or to suit the whims of an incumbent. Now, in the case of Congressional redistricting, I would never say this, because the Republican Party in states like Texas has demonstrated time and again that they will manipulate redistricting to achieve their own partisan aims. But in the state of Maryland, where we have a single apportionment entity, I think it’s important to have a neutral process.

5. Should judicial elections of any kind exist?

Judges should not be subject to the winds and whims of politics, period. Ending any kind of judicial elections is not a perfect guarantee of this. I would argue, for example, that the recent Supreme Court campaign finance decision was a baldly partisan move, and those bunch are appointed rather than elected. But judicial elections allow the possibility of our judicial system becoming corrupted, and should be eliminated entirely.

6. Should we vote differently?

If you’ve never heard of instant runoff voting, check it out. This posting’s too long already, so try google. I’m not sold on it, but it’s an intriguing idea.

7. What really belongs in the constitution anyway?

Do we really need Article XI-D: Port Development in the City of Baltimore? Do we really need Article XIX: Video Lottery Terminals? These belong in our state code, not in the constitution. Minor issue, I know, but it doesn’t exactly make us look good when held up against, say, the first amendment.