The Iowa State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse

This website provides news, pro & con, historical, and other information related to Iowa's constitutionally mandated November 3, 2020 referendum on whether to call a state constitutional convention.

Mission

The framers of Iowa’s 1857 constitution sought to ensure that the state legislature lacked exclusive gatekeeping power over state constitutional amendment. They did this by creating the institution of the periodic constitutional convention referendum. Previously, the only way that the state legislature could propose a constitutional amendment was to call a constitutional convention. So when the framers gave the legislature the power to propose amendments without calling a convention, they created the periodic convention referendum in part as a counterbalance to prevent the legislature’s abuse of its new constitutional amendment proposal power.

The right of the people to bypass the legislature in proposing constitutional amendments is especially important when the legislature has a conflict of interest with the people, which is often the case with proposed democratic reforms that might make state legislators more accountable to the people.  A corollary to this conflict-of-interest principle is that all insiders with disproportionate influence over the legislature compared to the general populace–what are popularly known as special interest groups–will also prefer that the legislature retain exclusive gatekeeping power over constitutional amendment.

Given this democratic institutional function of the periodic constitutional convention referendum, it fulfills a vital function within Iowa’s constitution. An alternative constitutional method to fulfill this function–the popular constitutional initiative, which is available in 19 states–is not available in Iowa.

The Politics of the Framing

The opponents of specific periodic constitutional convention referendums do not agree with the above framing. Instead, they complain that conventions are needless, expensive, and highly risky. That is, conventions fulfill no function in proposing constitutional amendments for popular ratification that the legislature cannot fulfill–and fulfill at much less cost and risk to democracy.

Surprising to me, proponents of voting yes on a specific periodic constitutional convention referendum have tended to go along with the opposition in not focusing on the periodic constitutional convention’s democratic function. Instead, they have tended to focus on particular narrow reforms that they have had difficulty passing in the state legislature. One reason for this framing is that the leading yes campaigners, such as governors and other accomplished political actors, tend to be repeat political players who are dependent on the goodwill of legislators and various powerful interest groups. They thus are careful to frame yes campaigns in a way not to burn political bridges. Another reason is that no compaigns tend to heavily promote as the face of yes campaigns groups with narrow and unpopular political agendas.

The Function of this Website

I seek to use this website to enhance public deliberation about the November 3 constitutional convention referendum. I do not expect the general public to be interested in the highly detailed information presented here, but I do hope that opinion leaders, including journalists and advocates, will be interested.

With this website, I seek to provide easily accessible historical, comparative, and normative information to help people understand the vital democratic function of Iowa’s periodic state constitutional convention referendum. I also seek to provide links to all notable published news and opinion about the current referendum campaign.

Your help in sending me links to published information related to the upcoming referendum, including ads, pamphlets, news stories, and opinion articles, will help me fulfill that goal.  But please wait at least three days after something is published before emailing me a link, as it often takes me a few days to post information.

A companion website, The State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse, provides comparative information on the fourteen states with the periodic state constitutional convention referendum.

For my overview of the periodic state constitutional convention’s political history since America’s founding and across all its states, see Snider, J.H., Does the World Really Belong to the Living? The Decline of the Constitutional Convention in New York and Other US States, 1776–2015Journal of American Political Thought 6, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 256-293. 

If you publish information derived from this website, please cite it. Such citation is rare in the advocacy and news communities, but I appreciate it, as it both expands the readership of this website and enhances my motivation to keep this website as helpful to you as possible.

–J.H. Snider, Editor
The Iowa State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse

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