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Rhode Islanders Reject Bringing the Constitutional Convention Back

The Ocean State is one of more than a dozen that periodically asks voters whether they want to hold another constitutional convention.

A painting of the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Wikimedia Commons
Rhode Islanders have opted against holding a state constitutional convention, an event that would have opened up the possibility for several major changes to the state’s political terrain.

The Ocean State is one of a handful in the country that periodically asks voters whether they’d like to hold another constitutional convention. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, 55 percent cast a no vote. The question appears on Rhode Island’s and four other states' ballots every 10 years, Michigan's every 16 years and eight other states' every 20 years. But voters rarely want to hold a convention. In fact, Rhode Island was the last state to do so, voting 30 years ago to hold what’s colloquially referred to as a “con-con.”

The rhetoric leading up to the vote Tuesday was passionate. Opponents warned a constitutional convention would merely be a way for special interest groups to push their agendas, while proponents advocated it would be a chance for people to push through changes -- like installing a line-item veto for the governor and establishing term limits for legislators -- that the General Assembly has been reticent to take up.

Oftentimes, fear of the unknown is the biggest deterrent to voters choosing whether to hold a constitutional convention. Most are unfamiliar with the process and therefore either vote against or don’t vote at all. In 2010, Maryland recorded more ballots for a constitutional convention than against, but too many voters left the question blank and it failed to get the needed plurality of votes.

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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