On November 4, 2014, the referendum to convene a Rhode Island state constitutional convention lost by 55.1% to 44.9%. On October 23, Brown University’s Taubman Center published a poll, the results of which were reported in the Providence Journal and Governing Magazine, finding that 42.3% of voters were in favor of a constitutional convention, 26.8% opposed, and 30.9% undecided.
Absentee ballots ran 50.1% opposed and 49.9% in favor, which suggests that the yes forces lost about 10% of the vote during the last few days of the campaign. Although it cannot be assumed that absentee ballots were necessarily representative of the larger voting public or that the poll was competently conducted, the drop-off is consistent with the experience of Rhode Island in 2004 and Connecticut in 2008, where there was a similar drop-off as the no campaign got into high gear and voters focused on the issue in the days before the election.
Voting in support of the referendum ranged from a high of 55.1% in Central Falls to a low of 38.0% in Burrilville. Central Falls is best know for its bankruptcy resulting from unfunded public pension liabilities. Burrilville is represented in the Rhode Island House by Cale Keable, who supervised the drafting of the constitutionally mandated Bi-Partisan Preparatory Commission Report on the constitutional convention referendum and was strongly opposed to convening a convention.
Although the referendum lost, the yes vote at 44.9% was the second highest yes percentage of the eleven state constitutional convention referendums held in the U.S. during the past decade (2005-2014). The only one that received a higher yes percentage vote was in Maryland in 2010.
What explains the outcome? Although one might just as well explain why it did so well in the face of a much better financed opposition backed by Rhode Island government media (notably, Rhode Island’s 2014 Voter Information Handbook), I will here attempt to explain why it lost.
Economic and political satisfaction with the status quo
In recent years, Rhode Island newspapers were full of articles noting Rhode Island’s history of corruption, its structural budget deficits, its declining population growth, its failure to keep up economically with adjacent states, and, most importantly, high unemployment (currently among the top three states in unemployment in the U.S. and after the 2008 recession in the number one spot). This was reflected in opinion polls indicating very high unhappiness with government. I compiled a few of the articles here.
But this did not translate itself into a desire for political change. Most state legislators ran unopposed in the general election and there was minimal legislative turnover. All state offices remained in democratic control. Voting turnout was 40.1%, among the lowest in the United States. With such apparent satisfaction with government, it was arguably no surprise that the constitutional convention referendum was defeated.
The referendum’s partisan perception
The constitutional convention referendum took on a partisan color, despite the efforts of the three leaders of RenewRI, the coalition in favor of a yes vote. The three leaders were Gary Sasse, director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University and a long-time Rhode Island government administrator, Phil West, the former long-time executive director of Rhode Island Common Cause, and Robert Flanders, a retired Rhode Island Supreme Court judge, who had been appointed by a Republican governor.
Rhode Island is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. For example, 69 of 75 Rhode Island House legislators were Democrats. But surprisingly, the largest voting block was independents, and the sitting governor was elected as an independent (although he then switched to becoming a Democrat). In 2014, the “Moderate Party” won more than 20% of the gubernatorial vote, spending only $35.31, not accepting contributions, and relying on free social media (see October 7, 2014 filing).
Despite the attempts of the yes campaign to have a non-partisan aura, there were three factors that worked against this. First, the no coalition was essentially the Rhode Island progressive coalition repurposed to oppose a constitutional convention. The yes coalition was clearly to the right of that, even if it had some bona fide progressives among its members.
Second, all the statewide Republican candidates supported a yes vote (that is, the candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and attorney general) while only the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor supported a yes vote. However, none of the candidates made a big deal about the constitutional convention referendum either for or against. The context for their positions on the issue was dutifully answering when moderators in TV debates asked them point blank whether they supported or opposed a yes vote on the question. The exception was Ken Block, a Republican candidate for governor, who lost in the primary. After Ken Block’s a primary opponent spoke out in favor of a constitutional convention and thus took away the issue, he deemphasized the issue for the duration of his primary campaign.
Third, and arguably most important, they painted the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity and one of its speakers, Grover Norquist, as the face of the opposition. Mike Stenhouse, the head of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, was an avid supporter of convening a constitutional convention and early on, as an individual rather than representative of an institution, was a member of RenewRI. He invited Grover Norquist to speak in favor of a constitutional convention at one of his events and this got great publicity, with the no coalition convening a TV press conference at the entrance to the event. This fit perfectly into one of the no coalition’s major themes, which was that a state constitutional convention would be dominated by wealthy, out-of-state special interest groups. It wasn’t so much that either Stenhouse or Norquist was repeatedly cited after the initial PR blitz as that they provided a rationale for an advertising campaign that would otherwise have been on very shaky empirical grounds. Norquist was, after all, a bonafide wealthy, out-of-state, highly conservative interest.
During most recent constitutional convention referendums, the no coalition has found some organization that is widely viewed as extremist and then heavily promoted it as the face of the opposition. An organization willing to take on this role as bogeyman for the no coalition can win hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of free publicity. Usually the winner of that largess has been a group promoting conservative social values in a state, such as Rhode Island, that does not have conservative social values. But in Rhode Island, no conservative social group was willing to step forward to win that bounty of free publicity. Moreover, Rhode Island’s bishop announced that he would not support promoting a pro-life agenda at a state constitutional convention. In that vacuum stepped Rhode Island’s Center for Freedom & Prosperity and Grover Norquist.
In comparison, RenewRI got relatively little free publicity from the no coalition, even though the press accepted RenewRI as the spokesperson for the yes coalition. The no campaign’s refusal to publicize RenewRI may have been more a testament to its perceived strength rather than its weakness.
The Secretary of State’s highly biased 2014 Voter Information Handbook
In Rhode Island, the Secretary of State drafts a voter information handbook that explains every referendum on the ballot and then mails it to every voter about a month before the election. The Secretary of State secretly farmed out the drafting of the constitutional convention explanation to the General Assembly’s leadership, which was adamantly opposed to convening a constitutional convention. The result was an explanation that highlighted the costs but not the benefits of voting yes for a state constitutional convention.
Voters heavily rely on the voter information handbook to understand what the more obscure bond referendums are about. Given that most voters have very little understanding what a constitutional convention is about, they may have been unusually influenced by the Secretary of State’s highly unfavorable but cleverly disguised cost-benefit analysis.
Some news outlets also heavily relied on the explanations in the 2014 Voter Information Handbook in their referendum guides. For example, the day before the November 4, 2014 election, radio station WBOB ran a segment: All You Need To Know About RI’s 2014 Ballot Questions, which included a description of the state constitutional convention referendum that was copied from the Handbook.
The Secretary of State’s numbering of the constitutional convention question
The Secretary of State gave the constitutional convention question the number #3. This was highly significant because in neighboring Massachusetts, which overlaps the Rhode Island media market, reject question #3 was the most heavily advertised item on the ballot and one of the most expensive in the entire United States. Question #3 asked voters if they wanted to ban casinos in Massachusetts, which were approved in another referendum in 2011. Blue chip casino companies, including MGM Resorts, Penn National Gaming, and Wynn Resorts, had announced plans to invest billions of dollars in Massachusetts casinos if the voters voted to reject Question #3. Gambling and labor interests spent $12.1 million dollars to oppose question #3, mostly spent on broadcast media, some of which reached Rhode Island (the vote no campaign includes links to 29 thirty to sixty second vote on 3 advocacy ads). That was about 250 times the amount spent on the yes campaign in Rhode Island (and more than has ever been spent on a Rhode Island referendum, which was $12 million in 2006 for another gambling referendum). Supporters of the Massachusetts gambling referendum in 2014 spent $582,334, less than 5% as much as the no campaign. More than 20 local unions also contributed grassroots support, including placement of “Vote ‘No’ on 3” signs. In addition to gambling interests anticipating hundreds of millions of dollars a year of profits from the casinos, public employee labor interests anticipated equivalent amounts a year in extra tax revenue. Massachusetts receives 25% to 49% of the casino revenue. The Massachusetts question #3 was defeated at the polls 60.1% to 39.9%.
Many Rhode Islanders drive on roads where they would have seen the Massachusetts “Vote No on Question 3” signs. Others would have heard the Massachusetts TV and radio stations filled with Vote No on Question 3 commercials.
Given the sophisticated political operatives involved in the drafting of the constitutional convention question and that those operatives could not possibly have missed the casino referendum in Massachusetts, it’s hard to believe that they did not take into consideration the implications of choosing number 3 for the constitutional convention referendum.
Moreover, there was a second reason for giving the constitutional convention referendum the number 3. Rhode Island’s legislative leadership wanted to expand gambling in Rhode Island, partly out of fear from increased Massachusetts competition (Rhode Island and Massachusetts have been conducting a gambling arms race), and had placed two gambling questions on the ballot. Those ballot questions were given the numbers #1 and #2. Even if the operatives did not draw the link between Rhode Island’s constitutional convention question and the Massachusetts gambling question, it is inconceivable that they would not have drawn a connection between the Massachusetts and Rhode Island gambling questions. Indeed, any Rhode Island gambling or labor lobbyist should have been fired on the spot if he allowed the industry’s yes campaign in Rhode Island to be confused with its massive no campaign in neighboring Massachusetts. As soon as the Secretary of State publicly announced that the constitutional convention referendum would be given the number 3, the Coalition for Responsible Government rebranded itself as “RejectQuestion3.com.”
The logic of coalition politics and the no campaign’s effective use of the social rights issue
The no campaign harped continuously about the threat that a constitutional convention could pose to a women’s right to choose. This was also the theme of a mailer sent by the Coalition for Responsible Government to a large fraction of Rhode Island women and widely received on Saturday, November 1, 2014, three days before the election. Although Planned Parenthood contributed less than 10% of the Coalition’s funding, its logo was placed on the corner of the flyer. The five top contributors to the Coalition were also listed in small print, starting with Planned Parenthood.
This was a striking question to highlight. In early June, 2014, Planned Parenthood conducted a poll saying that 93% of Rhode Islanders supported a women’s right to choose. It then widely distributed these findings to candidates for the General Assembly. The language it used to publicize its findings was: “Overwhelmingly, Rhode Islanders think it’s important for women in Rhode Island to have access to all of their reproductive health care options available to them, including abortion (93%).” The overall grassroots strategy was to demonstrate that there was overwhelming popular support for a women’s right to choose so that proposing legislation curtailing a women’s right to choose would be a losing proposition.
If the goal of the Coalition for Responsible Government was truly to protect minority rights, this was the absolutely wrong issue to choose because it was so popular. Same-sex marriage would have been much better because it only had about 55% support. Certain unpopular rights for felons would have been even more consistent with the rhetoric about protecting minority civil rights. But from another perspective, picking a women’s right to choose as an endangered right was brilliant. Since it was overwhelmingly popular in Rhode Island, it wouldn’t lose any votes.
Still, the issue seemed to be problematic for Planned Parenthood Rhode Island’s overall legislative strategy, which was led by the former political director of the National Education Association’s Missouri state chapter. From March 2014 through the November 2014 election, the leadership of Planned Parenthood supported the Coalition for Responsible Politics opposing a no vote. But, unlike other issues, it didn’t promote this issue on its website and promote it to its members via action alerts.
No right-to-life group appeared saying that it wanted a constitutional convention to pursue a right-to-life agenda, and Rhode Island’s bishop publicly announced that he wouldn’t support introducing social issues to the agenda of a constitutional convention. This was contrary to the Catholic Church’s position in 1986, when it aggressively pursued a right-to-life agenda and successfully got the convention convened that year to propose it as the last of fourteen proposed referendums, which was then defeated by more than 2:1 against (67% to 33%). Since then, public opinion in Rhode Island had become even more staunchly pro-choice.
My explanation of the politics driving this campaign is as follows: The unions, primarily the public employee unions, were the primary force driving the no campaign, as they also were in Rhode Island in 2004, Connecticut in 2008, and Illinois in 2008—all states where polls indicated the yes campaign could win. They were genuinely fearful of a constitutional convention and for that reason knew that they couldn’t be the public face of the no campaign. It was time for them to cash in their chits with their coalition partners, and that is what they did.
Interest group politics is largely about you scratch-my-back, I’ll scratch-your-back coalitions because an individual group is far less effective acting on its own. All over the country Planned Parenthood is part of the progressive coalition that includes labor unions, the ACLU, gay and lesbian rights groups, and the NAACP. These groups know they need each other’s support in order to have the critical support needed to win on the issues critically important to them. They won’t compromise their values on those issues, but on secondary issues they are happy to oblige their coalition partners. It’s like a woman who has an abusive husband but defends him because she knows she is better off having an abusive husband who earns a good living and helps with the children than being a single mother. And even if she felt she might be better off leaving her husband, she might recognize that her kids would be worse off, so for their sake she stays in the relationship. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are constituted of many such coalitions, and so was the progressive coalition that was activated in the Coalition for Responsible Government.
One cannot really prove such a conflict of interest on this particular issue. There isn’t any money to follow (although unions do provide some money to their progressive allies; e.g., see The Hechinger Report). There is always some excuse to plausibly deny such a coalition motive, which, like the ubiquitous legislative process known as logrolling (where one legislator will support something he opposes to get something he supports), is widely perceived as dirty and embarrassing when publicly acknowledged. Still, this logic of coalition politics primarily explained why the most visible partners in the Coalition for Responsible Government weren’t the main drivers and even appeared embarrassed to promote the issue to their members along with information (notably, the overwhelming support for a women’s right to choose) that would have seemed so contradictory if placed side by side.
Rhode Island’s constitutional convention politics reminded me of a scene in the House of Cards TV series where U.S. Vice President Frank Underwood abandons his bill to protect raped women to win the favor of the U.S. House leader whose support he needs to preserve and increase his power, which was his larger goal.
From a certain perspective, then, the fundamental tragedy of both good government and constitutional convention based reform is that there are always interest groups happy to sacrifice such reforms if it helps them pursue an issue they care much more about by allying themselves with the most powerful special interest groups who are in a position to help them pursue that issue. The problem occurs because the most powerful special interest groups will be intrinsically opposed to majoritarian and deliberative politics. The problem is aggravated with constitutional conventions because, even for groups where good government is the issue, such referendums come around only once every decade or two and have little chance of passing–but needing allies in the legislature and among your coalition partners is a day-to-day life-and-death matter that must take precedence for the sake of your organization. That, in my opinion, has become the tragedy of state constitutional convention based reform in the United States.
RenewRI’s crippling attempt at coalition politics
RenewRI was primarily focused on good government reform (such as legislative redistricting, ethics, and transparency, as well as enhancing the powers of the executive and judicial branches of government), but it made one exception. It supported the request of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees for more equitable state funding for low-income school districts. Like the Hassenfeld Institute, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees primarily exists to provide training to public officials.
This coalition partner, while bringing some benefits, may have hurt RenewRI in two ways. First, it shifted the focus away from the democratic purpose of a constitutional convention and gave more credence to the argument that what RenewRI was hoping to accomplish could not only be done by the state legislature but done by it more inexpensively.
Second, and more important, it made it difficult to respond in-kind to the no coalition’s special interest funding arguments. The no campaign regularly alleged that both out-of-state and in-state special interests would dominate a constitutional convention. But the yes campaign refused to acknowledge the union interests, especially the public employee interests, which were the primary players behind the no campaign. This despite the fact that the unions were relatively unpopular in Rhode Island, and both Democratic and Republican candidates for office had sought to publicly distance themselves from them. The unions certainly knew about their relative unpopularity, as they sought to frame the debate in terms of social rather than economic rights. My guess is that RenewRI would not have been able to keep the Rhode Island Association of School Committees as a coalition partner if it had responded in-kind to the no campaign’s attacks.
The portrayal of a constitutional convention as corrupt as the General Assembly
The no campaign constantly harped on its allegation that a constitutional convention would be as corrupt as the General Assembly, so why convene another body that would duplicate the ills of one that already existed. General Assembly leaders echoed this argument, when they alleged that there was nothing a state constitutional convention could do that they couldn’t do as well and with less expense to taxpayers. The yes campaign tried to respond to this argument by observing that a constitutional convention could merely propose amendments; citizens would have to approve them. But this was an inadequate response because the no campaign argued that the referendum process would be dominated by wealthy, out-of-state special interests.
My guess is that the only effective response to this type of argument would have been to ridicule it by highlighting the fact that in Rhode Island and other states the funders of no campaigns have been a who’s-who of special interest politics. If constitutional conventions could be so easily influenced by special interests, why would special interests be terrified of them? The Providence Journal and Westerly Sun newspaper editorial writers incorporated this argument in their editorials. But, as described above, the yes campaign either didn’t make it or didn’t’ make it effectively.
The tactic of special interest groups attacking special interest groups reminds me of the classic definition of Chutzpah: “a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”
Perhaps on no other issue concerning state constitutional conventions is Machiavellian politics more evident. The legislators and interest groups that oppose a constitutional convention on the grounds that they would control it tend to be the same legislators and interest groups that do everything in their power to bring about what they claim to oppose.
Asymmetric burden on the no campaign
Wherever there is confusion about a ballot referendum, people will tend to vote no. To win, the no campaign does not have to make its own case, it just has to seed doubt about the other side’s case. That creates an asymmetric burden on the yes campaign.
The pervasive use of fear-mongering by no campaigns illustrates that they understand this political dynamic. Until American students learn about America’s state constitutional convention tradition in their high school and college American government classes, I don’t see this burden going away.
Various advocacy efforts concerning this referendum made highly questionable historical and scientific statements, but academics who specialize in political history and science were not asked by the press and did not provide it with their assessments of the veracity of those assertions. At one point, I devoted considerable effort to getting Brown University Emeritus Professor Gordon Wood to share his knowledge about the history of state constitutional conventions in American democracy. Wood is one of the foremost scholars of American political intellectual history during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and has written both authoritatively and favorably about the early implementations of this innovative American institution. However, Wood was writing a book and refused to get involved in any capacity. Alas, the vast majority of political scientists and election law experts know no more about state constitutional conventions than the average man on the street. But there were other contested issues where they have more expertise, including issues associated with direct democracy and public opinion on social issues, yet they still failed to share their knowledge with the public. Attempts to get several departments at Brown University to host a pro and con debate on the contested political history and science issues fell on deaf ears.
Arms race effect
Ballot referendums have aspects of an information arms race: the greater the efforts of the yes campaign, the greater the efforts of the no campaign, so in this sense the yes campaign intrinsically backfired.
Yes advocates won the newspaper opinion page war. The newspaper editorial pages, including in the most influential paper, the Providence Journal, were 100% in favor of a yes vote. The bulk of the opinion commentaries were also in favor of a yes. But what the no campaign lacked in diversity of authors it made up in publicity. The same negative op-eds tended to run in many if not all local newspapers in Rhode Island (a phenomenon I didn’t even know was possible because I’d been taught that newspaper opinion pages demanded exclusives). Perhaps most importantly, several of the op-eds were widely broadcast to the no coalition’s grassroots supporters via social media, newsletters, and email—often behind a members-only firewall. Certain narrowly targeted blogs that would otherwise have had no meaningful audience were also strategically broadcast to relevant audiences.
As for the news pages, the yes and no campaigns received relatively little coverage compared to the high-profile races for governor and other statewide offices. Still, there was substantial coverage. But the coverage tended to report that the no campaign said a constitutional convention would endanger civil rights and be dominated by out-of-state special interests, while the yes campaign said it would enhance good government and could pass nothing into law without the approval of voters. The news pages made minimal attempts to evaluate the merits of either set of claims.
In terms of reported campaign contributions, the yes campaign did far better than any other yes campaign in recent decades for a constitutional convention referendum viewed by opponents as one that might win. It reported about half as much in campaign contributions as the no campaign. But paid media is only a fraction of total media. The yes campaign received more free media on the newspaper opinion pages. But in terms of grassroots communications, which don’t involve reported expenditures, it was completely outclassed by the no campaign. This reflected the nature of the memberships in the two types of coalitions. The yes coalition was made up of individuals, including many prominent individuals associated with good government reform. The no coalition was made up of groups, primarily labor groups, which were very well organized and had excellent mechanisms in place to communicate with their members.
In terms of anonymous contributors, the no campaign had an intrinsic advantage because it got its funding from groups rather than individuals. For example, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union receive substantial contributions from their labor union coalition partners. But campaign finance laws only require disclosure of the entity making a contribution to a ballot advocacy campaign, not the entity’s individual supporters. This inherently favors any ballot advocacy campaign dominated by well-organized interest groups. Surprisingly, the opposite logic may apply to candidate campaign finance disclosure, where the opportunity for individuals and groups to hide behind other entities has become relatively easy.
In terms of organization, the no campaign launched four months before the yes campaign (April 30, 2014 versus August 20, 2014) and merely had to activate its well established progressive coalition, whereas the yes campaign had to spend months trying to identify and organize good government enthusiasts. While many of those good government enthusiasts had a lot of political experience, they were not career government relations professionals. Nor did they have a fulltime, paid professional staff to orchestrate their campaign. They did, however, hire a competent political PR firm to orchestrate its published materials.
Overall, the yes campaign won the war of the opinion elites, as reflected in the newspaper opinion pages. But the no campaign won the masses, as reflected in the final election results. In this case, the two communities appeared to communicate relatively little with each other, perhaps reflecting the declining influence of newspapers. The effectiveness of the yes campaign with opinion elites may have merely mobilized and redoubled the efforts of both the General Assembly’s leadership and the no campaign. This included the State of Rhode Island distributing at government expense to every Rhode Island voter a biased 2014 Voter Information Guide masquerading as an objective cost-benefit analysis, and the no coalition’s implementation of a highly professional direct mail, grassroots, and broadcast media campaign.
Polling information on state constitutional convention issues is very poor. It’s quite possible that the Brown University poll from Oct. 23 grossly understated the level of undecideds at 30.9%. It is a well known polling phenomenon that voters will provide instant opinions to a pollster’s questions on issues they haven’t thought much about. The impression I had is that as of Oct. 23 the vast majority of Rhode Islanders did not even know the most rudimentary facts about how a constitutional convention would work, let alone that it was on the ballot. In contrast, a question about the gubernatorial race was much more likely to generate an informed and reliable response.
I think that what is needed is a poll that tests voter knowledge of the basic history and mechanics of a constitutional convention. How does the purpose of a constitutional convention differ from that of a legislature? How are delegates to a constitutional convention chosen? How do constitutional convention proposals become law? What is the relationship between state and federal constitutional law? How many constitutional conventions have been held in your state since its founding?
Questions about basic facts about the current constitutional convention question should also be asked. For example, if voters don’t know the question is on the ballot, their views about whether they will vote for it should probably not be included in the poll results. If they know the question is on the ballot, it should be asked where they found out about it. It should also be asked whether the information they have seen s generally positive and negative. After they give their position on the poll, it should be asked what were the most important reasons for their position.
It was my impression that Rhode Island’s yes coalition had little more than the vaguest idea what was actually in the heads of voters when they thought about voting to convene a state constitutional convention. This is a serious problem because even the most rudimentary knowledge cannot be presumed. For example, with a gubernatorial, legislative, or judicial election, it can at least be presumed that voters (as well as the press, political scientists, and other opinion elites) know the basic functions of those branches of government.
The lack of such rudimentary knowledge means that a no coalition can paint almost any picture on the voter’s mental canvass about the nature of a state constitutional convention as an institution, let alone what it might do at a particular time and place in the future. Until high school, college, and even Ph.D. level students of America Government are taught about the evolving history and purpose of America’s 233 state constitutional conventions since its founding, it’s hard to imagine this situation changing. (Note: this author received a Ph.D. in American Government from Northwestern University and, as a graduate student teaching assistant, taught introductory college level American Government.)
Thanks to Beverly Clay, RhodeIslandConCon researcher, for contributing to the RhodeIslandConCon.info website during the past year and providing comments on this post-mortem.
This marks the expected last blog post on RhodeIslandConCon.info. For any future information, please consult the companion website, The State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse.
For the advertising campaigns, click here.
For the news, click here.
For the newspaper op-eds, click here.
For the newspaper editorials, click here.
For RhodeIslandConCon.info’s blog posts, click here.
For the major government milestones between placing the referendum on the ballot and announcing the election results, see RhodeIslandConCon.info’s home page.