The State Constitutional

Convention Clearinghouse

U.S. states where the people can use a periodic state constitutional convention referendum
to bypass the legislature's gatekeeping power over constitutional amendment

“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.”

W. Brook Graves, State Constitutional Law, 1966


Op-Eds and Policy Briefs on U.S. Virgin Islands 2023 Constitutional Convention Enabling Act

Snider, J.H., Policy Brief: The Proper Scope of USVI’s Constitutional Convention, USVI Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse, January 2, 2024.

Snider, J.H., Policy Brief: Fixing USVI’s Constitutional Convention Enabling Act, USVI Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse, March 27, 2023, revised with addendum on January 1, 2024. 

Snider, J.H., USVI’s End-run Against America’s State Constitutional Tradition, Constitutional Conversations (a publication of the Center for Constitutional Design based at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law), June 7, 2023.

Snider, J.H., Implementing the Constitutional Convention Voters Approved in 2020, The Virgin Islands Consortium, March 24, 2023.

Snider, J.H., Where a U.S. Territory Can’t Get Its Own Constitution: A Self-Serving Legislature Drives the Plot in a Story of Democratic Failure, Zocalo Public Square, March 2, 2023.

Op-Eds on Alaska’s Nov. 8, 2022 Referendum

Op-Eds on Missouri’s Nov. 8, 2022 Referendum

Op-Eds on New Hampshire’s Nov. 8, 2022 Referendum

Op-Ed on Iowa’s Nov. 3, 2020 Referendum 

Course, Symposium, and Essay

A Political Primer on the Periodic State Constitutional Convention Referendum

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.

A State-Specific

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


We the PeopleSince 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

  1. A government agent (such as the legislature or secretary of state) places the periodic referendum on the ballot.
  2. Voters vote on the referendum.
  3. A government agent determines whether the referendum has been approved.
  4. If the answer is yes, a government agent arranges for the election of delegates to and the subsequent convening of the convention.
  5. Candidates register to run for delegate.
  6. Voters vote for delegates.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

  1. Voters vote on a referendum on whether to convene a state constitutional convention.
  2. Voters vote for delegates to the state constitutional convention via competitive elections.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Voters vote on whether to ratify the proposed amendments.
  6. 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.
  7. The state legislature may  rescind or amend any of the ratified laws via ordinary legislatively initiated and voter ratified constitutional amendments .*
  8. 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

  1. The legislature cannot prevent the people from having an opportunity to vote on whether to convene a state constitutional convention.
  2. The legislature must allow the people to convene a state constitutional convention if the requisite majority of people votes in favor of one.
  3. The legislature cannot directly gerrymander the districts from which the state constitutional convention delegates are elected.
  4. The legislature cannot control the state constitutional convention’s internal procedures.
  5. 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.”

Elster, Jon. "Forces and mechanisms in the constitution-making process." Duke LJ 45 (1995): 364.

“The important distinction so well understood in America, between a Constitution established by the people and unalterable by the government, and a law established by the government and alterable by the government, seems to have been little understood and less observed in any other country. Wherever the supreme power of legislation has resided, has been supposed to reside also a full power to change the form of the government.”

James Madison, Federalist #53, 1788.

Whenever [the people] shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it…. While I make no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize the rightful authority of the people over the whole subject, to be exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the instrument itself…. I will venture to add that to me the convention mode seems preferable, in that it allows amendments to originate with the people themselves, instead of only permitting them to take or reject propositions originated by others, not especially chosen for the purpose, and which might not be precisely such as they would wish to either accept or refuse.”

Lincoln, Abraham. First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

I am profoundly sensible of the honor you have done me in asking me to address you. You are engaged in the fundamental work of self-government; you are engaged in framing a constitution under and in accordance with which the people are to get and to do justice and absolutely to rule themselves. No representative body can have a higher task….

I am emphatically a believer in constitutionalism, and because of this fact I no less emphatically protest against any theory that would make of the constitution a means of thwarting instead of securing the absolute right of the people to rule themselves and to provide for their social and industrial well-being….

I hold it to be the duty of every public servant, and of every man who in public or private life holds a position of leadership in thought or action, to endeavor honestly and fearlessly to guide his fellow countrymen to right decisions; but I emphatically dissent from the view that it is either wise or necessary to try to devise methods which under the Constitution will automatically prevent the people from deciding for themselves what governmental action they deem just and proper.

It is impossible to invent constitutional devices which will prevent the popular will from being effective for wrong without also preventing it from being effective for right.

The only safe course to follow in this great American democracy is to provide for making the popular judgment really effective.

When this is done, then it is our duty to see that the people, having the full power, realize their heavy responsibility for exercising that power aright.

But it is a false constitutionalism, a false statesmanship, to endeavor by the exercise of a perverted ingenuity to seem to give the people full power and at the same time to trick them out of it….

If the American people are not fit for popular government, and if they should of right be the servants and not the masters of the men whom they themselves put in office, then Lincoln’s work was wasted and the whole system of government upon which this great democratic Republic rests is a failure….

I do not say that the people are infallible. But I do say that our whole history shows that the American people are more often sound in their decisions than is the case with any of the governmental bodies to whom, for their convenience, they have delegated portions of their power.

Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. president, Charter of democracy speech before the Ohio Constitutional Convention, Feb. 21, 1912

“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.

Moncrief, Gary. (2019). State Legislatures as Institutions. PS: Political Science & Politics, 52(3), 422.