In early October, Rhode Island’s Secretary of State mailed at taxpayer expense to hundreds of thousands of registered voters a printed copy of the 2014 Voter Information Handbook. The Handbook includes what is supposed to be an impartial explanation of all the questions on the ballot so that voters can make an informed choice about the merits of voting for or against each question.
The Handbook’s existence reflects the people of Rhode Island’s faith in the impartiality and due diligence of the Office of Secretary of State. But the drafting history of the explanation for Question #3 (the question whether to convene a state constitutional convention) calls that trust into question.
Based on a carefully researched and documented history of the drafting of Question #3 (see the History of the 2014 Voter Information Handbook), we draw six conclusions:
First, Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis acted as a puppet for the General Assembly’s leadership in drafting Question #3 in the 2014 Voter Information Handbook. Legislative staff not only drafted key sections of the question but were given an effective veto on any provisions they didn’t like.
Second, the Bi-partisan Preparatory Commission, a constitutionally mandated commission to inform the voters about the issues a constitutional convention could address, was used as political cover for the puppetry. The “preparatory commission” is mentioned five times in the explanation for Question #3 and has been repeatedly cited as the source of information that should more properly be credited to the General Assembly’s leadership. The General Assembly’s leadership appointed all twelve Commission members, including eight from the General Assembly itself.
Third, consistent with the puppetry, Secretary of State Mollis overturned the opinion of his legal counsel that the Bi-partisan Preparatory Commission’s cost estimate should not be included in the 2014 Voter Information Handbook. Former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders had written to the Secretary of State questioning the legality of including cost information for non-bond referendums. Others had questioned the undocumented and controversial way the cost was estimated. This prompted the Secretary of State’s executive and bond counsels to advise him to delete this information from Question #3, but the Secretary of State chose to accede to the desires of legislative staff to keep it in.
Fourth, in the 2014 Voter Information Handbook, more space (21 words) is devoted to describing the physical location where a copy of the Commission Report could be found (Room 208 at the State House) than to the issues that a constitutional convention could address (zero words). Those issues, presented at the Preparatory Commission public hearings by multiple speakers, included legislative redistricting, ethics, transparency, campaign finance, and term limits as well as enhancements to the powers of the executive branch, including the line-item veto.
Fifth, the General Assembly and Bi-partisan Preparatory Commission leadership have been opposed to convening a state constitutional convention. As the senior legislator who co-chaired and moderated the Commission said on a recent TV show: “I’ll be very upfront with you, I do not believe we should have a constitutional convention at this time. I think it would be a mistake for the state…. The constitution can be amended in other ways that doesn’t put us in jeopardy…. And, of course, there is the cost.… I’d rather see the 2.5 million dollars put towards the developmentally disabled in the state.”
Sixth, the Bi-partisan Preparatory Commission Report and the 2014 Voter Information Handbook failed in their respective explanations of the periodic constitutional convention referendum (Question #3) to explain its democratic function. The Framers of that provision in the Constitution included it to provide a checks & balances mechanism to initiate democratic reforms when the General Assembly was itself the problem. This omission of essential information about the purpose of the referendum mimics the framing of the issue by both the General Assembly leadership and the coalition favoring a no vote on the constitutional convention question.
The Question #3 wording in the 2014 Voter Information Handbook should be read not as an impartial explanation but as subtly crafted PR on behalf of the General Assembly’s leadership—paid for by Rhode Island taxpayers—to emphasize the potential costs rather than the benefits of convening a state constitutional convention.