Constitutional reform group to be out at polls
Mobile Register, October 22, 2004
By Sallie Owen

Voters' signatures sought on petition to change Alabama's constitution

RELATED MATERIAL
Petition Drive Leaders Info (PDF)
Petition Drive Workers Info (PDF)

MONTGOMERY -- A group dedicated to holding a constitutional convention to rewrite Alabama's governing document will begin a year-long petition drive at the polls Nov. 2. Volunteers across the state hope to collect 50,000 signatures that day.

"We want to take advantage of the tremendous voter turnout," said Fairhope lawyer Catherine Golden, who is chairing Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform's latest initiative. She said volunteers will not be at every polling place.

For four years, the organization has been trying to educate Alabamians about what it considers to be serious flaws in the state's constitution, which has 700-plus amendments and runs more than 315,000 words.

Critics say it denies power to county governments and favors special interests by centralizing power in Montgomery. Its restrictions require frequent amendments that often pertain to only one locality.

Robert Schaefer, southwest Alabama chapter chairman, said he hopes to have volunteers working at 15 of Mobile County's 89 polling places, though he has not yet finalized plans.

In Baldwin County, voters will have a chance to sign petitions at the Daphne Civic Center, Fairhope Civic Center and Robertsdale City Hall, said Wendy Allen of Fairhope who is also working on the initiative. At least one other location may be added, she said.

Golden said other areas targeted for election day include Birmingham, Montgomery, Florence, Huntsville, Auburn and Tuscaloosa.

The petition states:

"We, the undersigned residents of Alabama, petition the elected officials of this great state to take the action necessary to call for a convention of elected citizens for the purpose of presenting a new constitution to the voters of Alabama as soon as possible."

It asks people to sign their names and provide their ZIP codes. They will also be asked to sign only once during the duration of the petition drive.

Golden said the organization's Huntsville chapter tested the petition at select precincts during municipal elections in August. Volunteers got signatures from more than 8,500 registered voters that day.

The petition would not be binding on the Legislature, which would have to OK any convention.

Once the drive is complete, Golden said, signed petitions will be presented to lawmakers. The goal is to show that "not only is there a lot of power behind this grass-roots movement," she said, "there are people who are looking at this issue when they make their voting decision."

All 140 positions in Alabama's Legislature will be up for election in 2006.

Golden, who has been on the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform board since 2001, said the organization has had to regroup. Rewrite efforts led by the Legislature and the governor failed. In addition, the group's founder and chairman, Bailey Thomson, died suddenly last November. Thomson wrote award-winning editorials in the Mobile Register about the need for constitutional reform.

"This petition drive is the biggest thing we've ever done," Golden said. "At the grass-roots level, everybody wants to do something."

Meanwhile, the constitution's defenders insist that reform is an attempt to raise taxes and that a new document might delete references to God and protections of individual liberties such as gun ownership. They also say that an overhaul will lead to expanded gambling.

Sam Fisher, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Alabama, said it is much easier to find people to sign a petition than it is to get those people to vote that way.

"Everybody that has a vested interest in the current constitution will come out and fight it," he said, and they will prey on voters' fears.

Last year, opponents beat Gov. Bob Riley's $1.2 billion tax plan, which included provisions he said would correct long-standing injustices in the tax system that are ingrained in the constitution. In 1999, anti-gambling groups trounced a lottery proposal that at one time enjoyed strong poll numbers.

Now, opponents are crusading against a constitutional amendment on the ballot Nov. 2 that would remove language mandating poll taxes and racially segregated schools. Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and some other conservatives have said in recent weeks that they oppose Amendment 2 because they say it could also provide grounds for a new lawsuit over unequally funded schools. Such a lawsuit, they said, could lead to tax increases.

Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform's annual meeting will be held Tuesday on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham. Speakers include: U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham; Harvey H. Jackson III, professor and head of the history department at Jacksonville State University; and state Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville. Training will also be offered for Election Day volunteers.

Registration begins at 1 p.m. followed by the program at 1:30 in Brock Forum located in Dwight Beeson Hall. Golden said additional information on the training session and petition drive is available at www.constitutionalreform.org or by calling Sandra Behel at 205-540-7501.

For more information about the petition drive, Baldwin County residents can contact Allen at 510-8002. In Mobile County, Schaefer can be reached at 442-2312 or robtschaefer@aol.com.

Petition Drive Leaders, download information here »

Petition Drive Workers, download information here »

« back