Commentary: Convention of states not the way to go for voting rights

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Our democracy is in crisis — but we, the people, are working hard to stabilize and strengthen it.

Yes, the American people are divided, and hyperpartisanship has poisoned our public discourse. Yet groups like Common Cause Delaware are working across party lines to bring people together to create a more representative government.

Yes, anti-voter extremists, driven by deep-pocketed “dark-money” organizations, are working in many states to curtail the freedom to vote. But in other places, like Maryland, legislators are coming together across party lines to pass pro-voter legislation and implement campaign-finance reform and citizen funding of elections.

And yes, in this environment, it may be tempting to look for radical solutions, such as the Article 5 constitutional convention idea being pushed by the Convention of States Project. But as more people learn the details, legislatures in states like New Jersey and Colorado have rejected the idea and rescinded their calls for a convention.

While the idea of a “convention of states” invokes a fantasy of participatory democracy, the reality is far different. The campaign is fueled by a political agenda that aims to destroy the power of the federal government to serve the interests of the American people and impose an extreme agenda out of sync with what the general public actually supports.

The Convention of States (COS) Project may appear to be a nonpartisan effort, but it is actually the pet project of an array of far-right extremists, including, according to its official website: Trump Republicans, like Mark Meadows and Ron DeSantis; conservative evangelicals, like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee; Tea Party operatives, like Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint; and media moguls, like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. The COS effort was started by James O’Keefe, the far-right provocateur, known for deceptively editing secretly recorded videos, and Mark Meckler, a founder of the Tea Party Patriots and a writer at the Daily Caller (co-founded by Tucker Carlson), who has called the Black Lives Matter movement “evil.”

This is not a grassroots effort. The COS gets funding from the same big-money donors who have stymied the ability of Congress to work for the American people. Funders include the Koch brothers, petroleum industry oligarchs who founded the American Legislative Exchange Commission (ALEC) that brought us “stand your ground” laws, and the Mercers, who have funded Breitbart News, Cambridge Analytica, Steve Bannon and the Trump campaign.

And if a constitutional convention were convened? Presumably, delegates to the convention would be chosen by either Congress or state legislatures. In other words, the very people that are supposedly “the problem” would be the ones choosing the delegates to the convention. I say “presumably” because there are actually no rules governing the process — and it’s never been done before under our current Constitution.

COS supporters try to make it seem like a safe and “limited” process. They use the requirement that three-quarters of the states (38) must ratify congressionally proposed constitutional amendments to make it seem like voters would have control over a constitutional convention process.

But the last time the U.S. was supposed to have a “limited” constitutional convention, delegates threw out their existing constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and created a whole new document — today’s U.S. Constitution — with completely different ratification rules. That could easily happen again, and if it did, all of the constitutional rights we rely on would be up for grabs, and delegates could create their own way of “ratifying” their new constitution.

Given the growing power of extremists in the U.S., who knows what delegates might include in a new constitution?

Moreover, even their stated agenda is problematic. Sure, a “balanced-budget amendment” may sound good at first but think about the long-term consequences. During the COVID-19 crisis, it would have prevented the federal government from doing anything to help everyday Americans who needed medical care they could not afford, lost their jobs during the shutdown or faced eviction. The federal government represents the will of the people. The current U.S. Constitution already limits the power of government. We should not render it completely impotent.

I understand the frustration people feel about the current state of American politics; I feel it, too. But don’t be deceived. The constitutional convention idea is a special interest-funded, anti-democratic endeavor that will almost certainly strip power from the American people, while leaving our cherished constitutional rights up for grabs.

To really give power back to the people, we need to stop the attacks on our democracy by anti-voter extremists and curtail the power of big money by passing the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act so that “we, the people” — all of us — can vote and hold our government accountable.

Claire Snyder-Hall is the executive director of Common Cause Delaware.

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