“If it be asked what the American Revolution distinctively contributed to the world’s stock of ideas, the answer might go something along these lines…. The problem throughout much of America and Europe, for half a century, was to ‘constitute’ new government…. America solved the problem by the device of the constitutional convention…. The constitutional convention in theory embodied the sovereignty of the people. The people chose it for a specific purpose, not to govern, but to set up institutions of government…. The constitution was written and comprised in a single document. The constitution and accompanying declaration, drafted by convention, must, in the developed theory, be ratified by the people. The convention thereupon disbanded and disappeared, lest its members have a vested interest in the offices they created. The constituent power went into abeyance, leaving the work of government to the authorities now constituted…. There were two levels of law, a higher law or constitution that only the people could make or amend…. Such was the theory, and it was a distinctively American one…. European thinkers… lacked the idea of the people as a constituent power.”
–R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution:
A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800,
Princeton University Press, 2014, pp. 159-161.
State Color Code*
PINK — Constitutions with the mandatory periodic constitutional convention referendum.
PURPLE — Constitutions with the explicit constitutional convention popular initiative.
GREEN — Constitutions with both of the above constitutional convention mechanisms.
* States that may be able to use the popular initiative to call a constitutional initiative can be found here.
“[T]he advocate of constitutional reform in an American state should be endowed with the patience of Job and the sense of time of a geologist.”
Op-Eds on Alaska’s Nov. 8, 2022 Referendum
- Snider, J.H., Apparent biases at work in creating pro-ConCon statement, Juneau Empire, June 8, 2022.
- Snider, J.H., Derailing Alaska’s Constitutional Convention Referendum, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Feb. 20, 2022.
- Snider, J.H., Preparing for Alaska’s constitutional convention referendum, Juneau Empire, Feb. 9, 2022.
Op-Eds on Missouri’s Nov. 8, 2022 Referendum
- Snider, J.H., Missourians have a new opportunity to demand a constitutional convention, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 4, 2022.
- Snider, J.H., Appellate judges should call a jury to pick state Senate’s redistricting map, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 24, 2022.
Op-Eds on New Hampshire’s Nov. 8, 2022 Referendum
- Snider, J.H., Why is the constitutional convention question on the fall ballot?, New Hampshire Union Leader, May 6, 2022. Note that this is substantially the same op-ed as the one published below in the New Hampshire Journal.
- Snider, J.H., Why Is a Constitutional Convention Question on NH Ballot This Fall?, New Hampshire Journal, April 28, 2022.
Op-Ed on Iowa’s Nov. 3, 2020 Referendum
- Snider, J.H., It’s time to talk about a constitutional convention, The Globe Gazette, November 1, 2020.
- Snider, J.H., Iowa’s constitutional convention process, a triumph of democracy, could be improved, The Gazette, October 10, 2020.
- Snider, J.H., 3 things Iowans should consider about constitutional convention referendum, Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 21, 2020.
- Snider, J.H., Regular Iowans can change things by voting for a constitutional convention on Nov. 3, Des Moines Register, August 16, 2020.
Course, Symposium, and Essay
Short course held at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia Convention Center, Wednesday, August 31, 2016, 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Produced by J.H. Snider. The first part of the course, which included TV documentaries and pro & con political ads, can be found here.
A symposium summarizing the short course was published by the Law and Courts Section of the American Political Science Association. See Symposium: The Politics of State Constitutional Reform, Law and Courts Newsletter, Fall 2016. The symposium contributors were J.H. Snider, Sanford Levinson, John Dinan, and Carol Weissert.
Background reading, including references to major works in this literature, can be found at J. H. Snider, Does the World Really Belong to the Living? The Decline of the Constitutional Convention in New York and Other US States, 1776–2015, Journal of American Political Thought 6, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 256-293.
Compilation of Op-Eds
Snider, J.H., The State Con-Con Papers, Social Science Research Network, Nov, 8, 2021. A compilation of more than 50 short essays by J.H. Snider on the history, democratic function, and politics of the periodic state constitutional convention referendum.
Agave Americana, popularly known as the American Century Plant, is a plant that flowers once every 10 to 30 years in perpetuity via clone daughter plants. Its periodic and beautiful flowering is symbolic of the periodic state constitutional convention referendum. A consequence of the plant’s flowering so infrequently is that people forget it’s a flowering plant by the time it next flowers.
Published by the Hawaii State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse, December 7, 2017
(Click image to enlarge it)
Simplified Diagram of the Generic Periodic
Constitutional Convention Referendum Process
Decision Tree Diagram of the Generic Periodic
Constitutional Convention Referendum Process
At the “Unrig the System Summit” in Nashville, Tennessee on March 31, 2019, J.H. Snider explains that America has two constitutional mechanisms at the state level to bypass a legislature’s gatekeeping power over constitutional reform: the well known and often utilized popular constitutional initiative, and the little known and relatively rarely used periodic constitutional convention referendum. Click on the video, which will open in a different window.
Text Description of Recent
Periodic State Constitutional Conventions Processes
Since the late 18th century, the institution of the state constitutional convention has evolved substantially. For example, it was rare until the 19th century to have a popular election to either convene a state constitutional convention or to ratify its recommendations. Many state constitutional conventions also had legislatively appointed rather than popularly elected delegates. By the 20th century, however, popular elections to convene a state constitutional convention and then ratify its recommendations became the norm, as did popular election of delegates.
The periodic state constitutional convention, which is a variant of the state constitutional convention, is a relatively recent institutional innovation. By the end of the 18th century, only one U.S. state had it; by the end of the 19th, seven; and by the end of the 20th century, fourteen.
As a general rule, provisions for periodic state constitutional conventions have evolved to become both more detailed and less tolerant of legislative control of key stages of the process. During the past one hundred years, periodic state constitutional conventions have generally shared the following eight stages; the three stages where the public has voted are highlighted in red.)
Note that this is only an idealized outline that skips vital procedural details that vary from state to state. The Comparative Features and State Rankings web pages of this website focus on clarifying the significance of some of that procedural variation.
Stages of a Convention
- A government agent (such as the legislature or secretary of state) places the periodic referendum on the ballot.
- Voters vote on the referendum.
- A government agent determines whether the referendum has been approved.
- If the answer is yes, a government agent arranges for the election of delegates to and the subsequent convening of the convention.
- Candidates register to run for delegate.
- Voters vote for delegates.
- Delegates meet as a public body (the “constitutional convention”), deliberate on proposed constitutional amendments, and then vote on which ones to place on the ballot for voter ratification.
- Voters vote on whether to ratify the proposed amendments.
Key Accountability Mechanisms
A state constitutional convention does not have unlimited power. It is subject to major checks, the most notable of which are approval of everything it proposes by the voters and compatibility with the U.S. Constitution of any proposals the voters approve. The various major checks are listed below, with the checks by other branches of government, excluding the state legislature, highlighted in red.
Checks on the Convention
- Voters vote on a referendum on whether to convene a state constitutional convention.
- Voters vote for delegates to the state constitutional convention via competitive elections.
- The elected delegates meet as a public body (the “constitutional convention”), which deliberates and votes in public on proposed constitutional amendments and then only places on the ballot for voter approval those proposals that receive a majority vote of the delegates.
- After the adjournment of the constitutional convention, the proposed amendments are published for the public to deliberate upon for an extended period of time before being asked to vote on them.
- Voters vote on whether to ratify the proposed amendments.
- The ratified laws must be consistent with U.S. government law, including the U.S. Constitution, U.S. Supreme Court case law, Congressional statutes, and federal rulemakings, all of which may be changed at any time.
- The state legislature may rescind or amend any of the ratified laws via ordinary legislatively initiated and voter ratified constitutional amendments .*
- The ratified amendments are subject to judicial interpretation.*
* This assumes that the proposals the voters ratified didn’t restrict legislatively initiated constitutional revision or judicial review.
Key Limits on the Legislature’s
Ability to Control the Process
The amount of legislative control over the periodic state constitutional convention process is one of the key areas where state constitutions vary. For example, some states allow legislators to run as delegates; others ban it. The following lists some of the shared constitutional limitations on legislatures as of the early 21st century. In practice, these limitations aren’t absolute, as legislatures have sometimes found politically feasible ways to circumvent them. The key feature, which explains the universal hostility of legislatures to the periodic state constitutional convention, is the absence of legislature agenda control and is marked in red.
Limits on the Legislature
- The legislature cannot prevent the people from having an opportunity to vote on whether to convene a state constitutional convention.
- The legislature must allow the people to convene a state constitutional convention if the requisite majority of people votes in favor of one.
- The legislature cannot directly gerrymander the districts from which the state constitutional convention delegates are elected.
- The legislature cannot control the state constitutional convention’s internal procedures.
- The legislature cannot limit the state constitutional convention’s agenda.
“[T]o reduce the scope for institutional interest, constitutions ought to be written by specially convened assemblies and not by bodies that also serve as ordinary legislatures. Nor should the legislatures be given a central place in the process of ratification. In both these respects, the [1987 U.S.] Federal Convention can serve as a model.”
“Without exception, legislatures, as a whole, are a shambles of mediocrity, incompetence, hooliganism and venality….State legislatures are the most sordid, obstructive, and anti-democratic law-making agencies in the country.” (Allen Reference Allen1949, xxxvi)
It might be tempting to dismiss this hyperbolic display as the sensationalism of a muckraking journalist. But even the more reserved academic assessment of legislative scholars sounded a similar (if less dramatic) theme.
It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.