Michigan’s 1963 state constitution requires a referendum on calling a constitutional convention to appear on the ballot once every 16 years. This ballot question received little attention when it lost by landslides in 1978 and 1994, but given the dysfunction and gridlock from state politicians in dealing with the economic meltdown, we may see a serious campaign to approve it on Nov. 2.
Is a complete overhaul of the state’s governmental structure necessary? Perhaps the major cause for dysfunctional state politics is term limits, but that can be dealt with by an amendment to repeal them. There have been plenty of complaints about the state’s taxation system, but the most severe restriction in the constitution, a ban on a graduated income tax, can also be addressed by an amendment.
What other significant structural changes need to be made? Those who are pushing for a constitutional convention have for the most part been vague about what they want.
If the ballot question were approved, the results would be a crapshoot. We don’t know who would be elected as delegates, what agendas they would have, and who would be bankrolling their campaigns. If the convention has a Republican majority, we may see drastic changes that could hamstring state and local governments, given the ideological extremism of many in that party. Of course, whatever the convention may produce would be decided by the voters, with rejection of a new constitution making the entire process a waste of time and money.
As a guideline for what may happen, we can turn to the last time Michigan approved a new constitution, which began with narrow voter approval of a referendum to call a convention in 1961. Delegates were elected from badly malapportioned legislative districts in a 1961 special election with a low turnout, producing a 99-45 Republican majority.
While the constitution this convention produced banned a graduated income tax, it also banned the death penalty. The number of independently elected statewide offices was reduced, while the terms of the remaining statewide office holders and state senators were increased from two to four years, and the state Court of Appeals was created.
While most Democratic politicians and their supporters opposed the new constitution, they didn’t mount much of a campaign against it after initial polls showed the new constitution winning by a landslide. But in a surprise, approval in 1963 was by a very narrow margin of 810,860 (50.2 percent) in favor to 803,436 (49.8 percent) opposed.
The constitutional convention was also a launching pad for the careers of many politicians, include George Romney, a Republican who was elected governor in 1962; Coleman Young, a Democrat who went on to become mayor of Detroit; three congressmen; and numerous state legislators. Whatever the abilities and shortcomings these politicians demonstrated, we have no guarantee that delegates to a new convention could even rise to their level.