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Once per decade, Alaska voters are faced with a momentous choice: Whether to initiate a constitutional convention that would propose wholesale changes — potentially even a complete rewrite — of our state’s founding document. Although this provision of the Alaska Constitution has been cause for heartburn among many over the years, it serves a valuable function. It forces us to step back and assess whether Alaska has issues of governance that are profound enough that cracking open the constitution is the best realistic remedy to address them. Alaskans take this responsibility seriously, and each time the vote has been taken in the past several decades, the result has been a rejection of a new constitutional convention.
This year, Alaskans should reject it once again.
The risks presented by a constitutional convention would be immense, and the prospects for improvement on our existing constitution would be slim at best. Delegates to the constitutional convention would have free rein to cancel current constitutional provisions, reshaping the branches of government and opening the door for our state to be a testing ground for drastic partisan policies. With virtually no restriction on political spending, it would be an opportunity for moneyed Outside interests to use Alaska as a proxy fight over platforms that conservative and liberal forces want to institute nationwide. It’s a virtual certainty that foundational issues like taxation, gun ownership, resource development, public lands access and our right to privacy would be on the table.
This isn’t to say that the Alaska Constitution is so perfect it will never need revision — it has, and surely will again. But we have an amendment process that has worked well, with a suitably high threshold for making changes. Convention advocates say that threshold — two-thirds of legislators, followed by a simple majority vote of the public — is too high, and that we should be able to make changes with just the majority vote that would be in effect at a constitutional convention. But our founding document shouldn’t be so easily changed. The two-thirds majority requirement for legislative approval of proposed amendments keeps frivolous and overly divisive proposals from being put before the public. And it’s not as though that bar is too high to make needed changes: Since Alaska achieved statehood in 1959, the Legislature has passed and voters have approved 28 constitutional amendments — more than have been made to the U.S. Constitution in 200-plus years.
It’s also important to consider the political atmosphere at the time Alaska’s constitution was drafted compared to today. In 1955-1956, when delegates came together at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Alaska was a different place, and the tenor of the proceedings reflected that. Although the delegates had starkly different political views and philosophies, they also recognized the sober responsibility of crafting a governing document to stand the test of time. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they were galvanized by Alaska’s inadequate role in governing its own affairs as a territory, as well as Outside business interests that took advantage of its colony-like status for profit, leaving too little value for Alaskans. They recognized that these common goals were more important than any personal agenda.
No such spirit exists today. Political leaders have proven themselves all too willing to scorch the earth in service of partisan wins and scoring points on wedge issues. Based on the behavior in our Legislature, many elected representatives are perfectly willing to stymie progress on an issue if they aren’t getting their way — or, conversely, to try to ram their pet legislation through without regard to the input of other legislators or the public. Some convention proponents have expressed optimism that the gravity of a constitutional convention would somehow transform delegates’ attitudes, making them more collegial and prone to cooperation across ideological rifts. It’s a lovely hope, but this is simply magical thinking. There is every indication that delegates, who would look very similar to the makeup of our Legislature, would get bogged down on dozens of issues, wasting millions of dollars and producing a deeply flawed set of divisive proposed changes — if, indeed, they were able to agree on anything at all. There’s a reason you’re seeing groups that are often bitter foes — unions and business owners, Republicans and Democrats, rural and urban residents — come together and speak out against a convention: They know how painful and potentially devastating rewriting our constitution could be.
It wouldn’t be an accident that the convention delegates would likely resemble the Legislature: In all likelihood, many of those delegates would be legislators themselves. After all, if there were better, more noble candidates we could be calling upon to draft our laws, we’d already be sending them to Juneau in hopes that they would improve the productivity of legislative sessions. And the name recognition of incumbency would be a massive advantage for legislators who wanted to be delegates. Not all legislators would be likely to throw their names into the mix, but plenty would. The opportunity to rewrite Alaska’s foundational rules and principles is a seductive one for those who seek power — especially those with strong, divisive opinions about what those rules should be.
Alaska has important issues we must address to set ourselves on a track for a better future, but none of them would be best addressed by a constitutional convention. The bottom line: A convention would be an expensive, risky sideshow that would be fruitless at best and catastrophic at worst. Alaska’s constitution has served us well, and any tweaks we need can be addressed by amendments. Don’t fall prey to this con. In November’s election, vote no on Ballot Measure 1.