« There's Tension In Federalism | Main | QOTD »

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Speaking Of Amendments

An Amendment To Be from The Simpsons.

With the codification of bigotry into the NC state constitution, I've been very interested in how the amendment process unfolds in different places.  I suppose many Americans are familiar how we amend the US Constitution, but each state has its own way to make fundamental changes.

CA, for example, where PropH8 passed, is probably the most democratic (read: mob ruled).  Through the initiative process, a proposed amendment only needs signatures equal to 8% of the total vote for Governor in the previous election to qualify for the ballot, then it's a majority vote to pass.  The proposal got 1.1M signatures, which was a mere 6.5% of CA's 17.3M registered voters (only 40.5% of registered voters approved).  To me, that's a frighteningly trivial threshold for altering your state's framing document, let alone for denying civil rights to your fellow human beings.

NC is a smidge better from where I sit, but still scary.  All that's required there is a 3/5 majority in each chamber of the General Assembly, then a majority of voters in referendum.  Requiring the Legislative branch to propose amendments with a supermajority does add a bit of a buffer, but it's still a relatively low bar.

Of course, I might be biased because VT's process is fairly byzantine, even compared to what's in the US Constitution.  The power to propose amendments is limited to our Senate, and only every 4 years.  A 2/3 majority is required to pass that chamber, then a simple majority in the House.  THEN there must be an intervening election to give voters their first chance to weigh in on the specific proposals by choosing legislators and ostensibly instructing them to support amendments or not.  In the next legislative session, proposals must pass both chambers with a majority, and only then does the show finally go to the voters for a majority vote.

Whew!  That's actually easier than the previous two processes: before 1975 the so-called timelock was 10 years; before 1870 it was a 7-year lock with proposals coming from a 13-member Council of Censors who were specifically elected for the purpose of suggesting amendments and could not be members of the Legislature.  Convoluted, but an interesting balance between the competing requirements for change and stability.

That's a key concern with any amendment process.  Obviously we need to have our laws adapt to changing times and needs, but without a firm foundation the rule of law becomes capricious and harmful to the common good.  I really don't care for CA's approach because it too easily enables a tyranny of the majority.  In VT, the timelock is perhaps too restrictive, but I do like that 2 successive Legislatures have to grind the sausage machine before final ratification by the People--we give voters a real chance to debate and consider the issues at hand in various fora before making significant alterations to the fabric of our state governance.  

I wonder what it would look like if CA and NC had similar mechanisms that slowed down the rush to amendment, cooling passions and allowing for greater reflection (and evolution?) over time...


PS--I voted for the gender inclusive language amendment to the VT Constitution that passed in 1994.

PPS--I'm such a geek that I find great amusement in conspiracy theories swirling around the "missing" 13th Amendmentthe 16th Amendment and the 17th Amendment.

PPPS--I haven't had time to check, but do all the 11 former Confederate states that have marriage equality bans in their constitutions also have explicit articles banning secession like NC does?  If so, that's too bad, because I'd be happy to grant them a divorce now.

Show a little "yuhyoohappy" during the NTodd Ain't Ann Romney Fundraiser *

May 12, 2012 in Constitution, Schmonstitution | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Speaking Of Amendments:


The Texas constitution has hundreds of amendments. Each major election brings a dozen or so more propositions for voters to decide. The constitution is so detailed, including so many things that by right should have been left to legislation, that if an individual county wants to do without, say, an elected Voter Registrar because they have a population of 100, there has to be a state constitutional amendment to permit it.

In the mid-1970s Texas called a constitutional convention to revamp the whole thing. Each delegate wanted to keep his or her favorite personal-advantage amendments (there are a lot of those, too) and a couple of years and a few million dollars later, the convention packed up and everybody went home... without a new constitution.

Miraculously, we still have public schools and paved roads here, but I expect to wake up any morning now and find them gone.

It is easy to judge people by the politics of their state, but many people, especially children, seniors and the disabled, are not in a position to move elsewhere. I am stuck in Texas. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Posted by: Steve Bates | May 13, 2012 10:17:23 AM

Texas is just a fucked up place, from where I sit, and I'm sorry there are so many people imprisoned there and in other less-enlightened states.

Posted by: NTodd Pritsky | May 14, 2012 8:43:19 AM

Post a comment