Be careful what you wish for

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: October 26 2010 | 12:01 am - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 7:05 am in
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By The Gazette Editorial Board

Groups up in arms over same-sex marriage in Iowa are pushing voters to say “yes” to the question of whether the state should hold a constitutional convention.

They disagree with the April 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision that paved the way for same-sex marriage. And they’ve decided that if discrimination against what the justices ruled a civil right is prohibited by the state constitution, it’s the constitution that must change — not their own convictions.

They’re also not content to lobby legislators to pass a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment. “Let the people decide,” they say, by holding a constitutional convention.

Problem is, holding a convention to revise or amend the state’s constitution would be like opening Pandora’s box. It would allow “the people” — through delegates and an agenda determined by legislators — to decide on literally everything governed by the document.

Even if you’re convinced that the state constitution should be changed to outlaw same-sex marriage, the best way to do that is not through a constitutional convention. That option could open the floodgates on hundreds of issues in a cumbersome, lengthy process.

A convention is the last step in checks and balances — it’s been called an “alternative relief valve” for constitutional changes that fail to make it through the amendment process. It’s voters’ nuclear option.

It’s not designed to make targeted changes. That’s what amendments are for. And the convention process has not been used since the 19th century.

When delegates convened Iowa’s constitutional conventions in Iowa City in 1844, 1846 and 1857, they had major structural decisions to make: What would the state’s boundaries be? Where would the capitol be located? What branches of government should we establish and how should they operate? Should we allow banks to operate in the state? This is the type of business suited to constitutional convention.

It took delegates 39 days to draft that last constitution in 1857 — it barely was approved at referendum.

Amending the constitution, as Iowa’s document has been 46 times since its adoption, is the proper tool for targeted changes if Iowans are serious about a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

It’s one of those amendments — a 1964 change that requires the constitutional convention question to be put to voters once each decade — that has made this extraordinary option available. That doesn’t make it the right one on Nov. 2.

In the past, the constitutional convention question has come as a surprise to most voters. Every time it’s come up — in 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000 — they’ve have had the good sense to vote “no.”

That’s the right choice again this year.

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