The Constitutional Convention: Invite Everyone

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

As a reporter, I spent a good amount of time sneaking into places where I wasn’t supposed to be. Humankind, especially the sub-species known as newspaper editors, have a fascination with exclusive places and events, after all. My experience – over and over – was the same. The story was always better when I could NOT find a way inside. The mystery – and the fact that I could write about the secrecy of the particular event or meeting – made it more interesting. When I managed to sneak in and witness what happened, the story often proved to be a letdown: the negotiation or party was always far more boring in reality than in the imagination.

Which brings me to the ongoing debate about who should be permitted to serve as a delegate at a state constitutional convention. Should delegates be elected in some form? Should regular voters be delegates, chosen at random or through some other kind of system? Views are being expressed and opinions are hardening. Supporters of elections suggest that bringing in random voters would create a chaotic disaster. Supporters of using random voters fear that special interests would dominate elections.

Here’s a simpler way to do it (which was first suggested to me by a very smart and experienced California political consultant with no ties to the convention):
Open up the convention to anyone who wants in.

That’s right. Let’s try Athenian democracy.

You want to be a delegate? If you’re a registered California voter who is willing to pay for your travel, volunteer your time and show up for every meeting, then you should be able to be a delegate. California voters are the authors of every word in the California constitution, so any voters who wants to rewrite the document should be invited to show up.

Some might say that such a convention would devolve into a too-big free-for-all, sort of the California version of Andrew Jackson’s inauguration. I doubt it. As long as a rule was put in place that required each delegate’s attendance at every meeting (skip a meeting and you’re kicked out), you wouldn’t have too large a group. And the benefits of such an approach are great. Much of the fear about convention delegates is a result of concern that the rules would be used to exclude certain people, viewpoints, and interests. If the convention is truly open, those concerns would melt away. (Yes, one could say that requiring people to pay their own way is a form of economic discrimination that would favor well-financed, organized groups. But by the same token, the unemployed might be over-represented, since they have the kind of free time to devote themselves to this).

If the convention feels like an exclusive party, people will want in (and you’ll create politically poisonous resentments). But if the convention looks like what it should be – a serious chore for delegates – the only problem may be convincing enough people to show up.

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