Today, Scotland will be making a decision about whether it wants to declare independence from the United Kingdom. There will be an incredible amount of turnout, it’s likely 97% of all people eligible have registered to vote, and turnout is likely to top 80% of registered voters.
On November 4th, Rhode Islanders will also have a chance to declare independence. Turnout will most likely be much lower, perhaps around 50%, closer to 60% if we’re lucky. Unlike Scotland, we won’t be declaring independence from a country, but rather we are declaring independence from ourselves. As Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” A Constitutional Convention is a chance to begin Rhode Island over again.
However, it is only a chance. Just as Scottish independence is a prospect fraught with risk, so too is a Convention. I cannot minimize the risks. We could roll back gains in civil rights. We could roll back access to the sea. We could roll back access to the ballot. We could roll back worker protections. Any time a dominant group is called upon to vote upon the rights of a minority group, there is a strong risk they’ll restrict those rights.
Those who are the loudest yellers for a Convention highlight those risks. When I see their faces peering out from photos or in video, it’s a bit frightening. Take a look at their faces. They are old faces. Old faces that have been around for a long time, some long enough to have participated in the last Convention. And yet here they are, trying to solve the same problems that many of them helped cause or failed to fix 30 years ago.
They’re out there, pushing old, unimaginative ideas. Ideas that are about fixing problems for the now. These are the types of ideas for small thinkers, thinkers focused on the here and now. But modifying Rhode Island’s constitution isn’t just about solving the problems of today. It’s a document for the future, and as such, as much as it should attempt to solve the problems we face now, it needs to be about solving the problems we will face in the future.
We must think about the future. Any Constitution we create may last a decade, or three, or perhaps a century or longer. It will outlast the old men, who will soon slink off to Florida to bask in the sun in their retirement. This should be a Constitution for the young, built by the young, argued out by the young. Our elders had their shot, and look how well they did. They’ve had decades in power, and they’ve wasted them. If we let the old guard control this process we will be back here in a decade or two to fix the same problems.
A Convention should be a time for fresh faces and fresh ideas. If the old hands control the Convention, they will make it the last hurrah for all their tired ideas. What they cannot achieve through the ballot box or legislative processes they will try to push through in the Convention, and hope that it will make it through.
We must be a thousand times better. I know this is a tall order, especially for those of us so young. We must not only win at this Convention, we must also win at the legislative process and at the ballot box. The odds are against us. We lack the resources, the time, the organization, the money… all the things that make winners out of dull thinkers. Sometimes, we will have only our hope to sustain us. But sometimes, when the odds are against you, you rise to the challenge and beat them.
To those of you organizing to stop the Convention so your rights are kept safe, I hear you. I think your cause is just. Though we are of differing opinions on this matter, I am not against you. I am a man of privilege, but with enough empathy that I will not seek to marginalize your fears or ignore the dangers you will face in a Convention. They are real, and you need to ignore all the fools who tell you otherwise, and seek to prevent those dangers through every means possible.
For myself, I view the Convention as a moment to rearrange how our citizens access the powers of our state. It cannot hand power to the people. But it can give them the inspiration to reach out and take it.