Voters should decide whether they want a new constitution
Huntsville Times, Sunday, January 15, 2006
By John Ehinger

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If Alabama is to have a new state constitution to replace the cumbersome and flawed document of 1901, who should decide - if not the people? And if the people want a new constitution, who should decide what's in it and not in it - if not the people?

Such a fundamental principle is precisely what the debate boils down to over the proposal to call for a constitutional convention to draft a new constitution and submit it to the voters. Yet at every step of the way, powerful, reactionary groups oppose letting the people make the final decision and the interim decisions leading up to it.

A bill in the Legislature, sponsored by state Sen. Ted Little, D- Auburn, and state Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, would let voters decide at the polls whether to create a constitutional convention.

If the voters agreed, those same voters in a subsequent election would pick the delegates to the convention. Candidates for the delegate posts would be subject to contribution limits and held to the same disclosure requirements as legislative lobbyists.

Once the convention drafted a proposed constitution, it would have to be ratified by the voters before it would take effect. If the ratification vote failed, the constitution of 1901 (including its 770-plus amendments) would remain in effect.

It's impossible to think of any safeguards that have not been included in the proposal. But no movement for constitutional reform will ever satisfy the critics who benefit so greatly from the status quo.

The bill offered by Little and Newton quickly drew objections from the Christian Coalition of Alabama and others. They labeled the proposal a sneaky way to raise taxes or to legalize gambling casinos. They raised the specter of "special interests" calling the shots - as if the opponents were not themselves special interests.

Perhaps most disturbing is the opponents' distrust of the people, the notion that the voters of Alabama could be hoodwinked by a constitutional convention. Such language implies that the people are too ignorant to be entrusted with their own future.

Reform opponents have long tried to play the fear card with the voters. Now they seem to be embracing an elitism that ill-becomes anyone who purports to represent the average citizen.

Let's settle the matter. Let the voters decide if they want a constitutional convention. If they do, let them pick the delegates. Finally, let them vote the document up or down. To imply that the voters can't be trusted with such an issue also implies that they can't be trusted to participate in democratic government at all. Anyone who claims to speak for the people must finally let the people speak for themselves.

(The Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform has set a rally for Jan. 25 in Montgomery. For details, see www.constitutionalreform.org.)

By John Ehinger, for the editorial board. E-mail: johne@htimes.com

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