Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was elected a delegate to Missouri’s 1875 constitutional convention. There, he led the successful fight to enact the first home rule charter in any state constitution in America. Despite winning home rule for St. Louis, the scope of that measure would remain stunted by the Legislature’s obstinance. As late as 1962, the Post-Dispatch editorialized in favor of calling another constitutional convention to further the home rule revolution Pulitzer began.
On Nov. 8, Missourians will again have the opportunity — an opportunity that comes only once every 20 years — to vote on whether to call a state constitutional convention. It is important to understand why this question is on the ballot and why Legislature- and petition-initiated constitutional amendments are inadequate substitutes.
Missouri’s periodic constitutional convention referendum was incorporated in its state constitution because of a constitutional initiative passed in 1920. Advocates for that initiative had spent more than a decade trying to get the Legislature to pass a referendum asking voters whether they wanted to call a convention. After the Legislature’s repeated refusals, the advocates used the constitutional initiative to bypass it.
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The constitutional convention was invented in Massachusetts in the late 1770s. The institution of the written constitution had just been invented, and it seemed obvious to Massachusetts’s “Berkshire Constitutionalists” that it would be a blatant conflict of interest for legislators to have exclusive proposal power over their own constitutionally specified powers. A separately elected convention, where the elected delegates would disband immediately after making their proposals for popular ratification and thus not occupy the offices they designed, would solve that problem. This explains Missouri’s current constitutional provision that no person “holding any other office of trust or profit … shall be eligible to be elected a [convention] delegate.” It also explains why the Legislature cannot limit a convention’s agenda; allowing it to do so would defeat the convention’s democratic function.
The problem with the original constitutional convention process is that it left calling a convention in the hands of the Legislature. By the late 19th century, legislatures had won for themselves the right to initiate constitutional amendment. Recognizing that a convention would threaten their gatekeeping monopoly over constitutional proposals, legislatures thus became its implacable enemy. The periodic constitutional convention referendum was created so that the people wouldn’t need to rely on the convention’s implacable enemy to call one.
Today, the implacable enemies of the constitutional convention go well beyond the state Legislature. They include the special interests that, by definition, excel in influencing the Legislature; public interest groups happy to trade their opposition to an issue they care little about — calling a convention — for their coalition partners’ support on issues central to their mission; and groups that feel they are in the minority and would lose out in a convention.
In short, nowadays pretty much every elite on which voters rely upon for voting cues, regardless of partisan ideology, has lined up in opposition to calling a convention.
Nevertheless, Pulitzer and subsequent generations of Post-Dispatch editorial writers were on to something when they realized that a constitutional convention was more likely than the Legislature to pursue more home rule for St. Louis. So were the advocates of the periodic constitutional convention referendum, who recognized that the constitutional initiative also could not compete with the constitutional convention in proposing certain types of changes in the public interest (the resulting convention of 1922 offered the people 21 proposed amendments to vote up or down).
A constitutional convention remains an important mechanism to prevent government agents created by a constitution from directly controlling their own powers. The constitutional initiative is a partial solution to that conflict-of-interest problem. But, by law, it cannot address changes affecting multiple subjects and is ill-designed to address issues that well-funded and organized private entities won’t invest to place on the ballot. In contrast, a publicly funded convention allows its delegates to propose changes merely by raising their hands.
Like all democratic institutions, Missouri’s constitutional convention process is imperfect. Indeed, reforming it should be a top priority for a future constitutional convention. Meanwhile, it continues to serve a unique and vital function that should be recognized and cherished.
J.H. Snider is the editor of The Missouri State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse and author of “The Decline of the Constitutional Convention in New York and Other US States, 1776–2015.”