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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government

Saturday, February 24, 2018
NYS ConCon 2017

The Second Rejection: The Constitutional Convention of 1915

The every twenty-year clause would have put the convention question on the ballot in 1916, a presidential election year. The legislature moved the date back to 1914 and the electorate approved a convention by a slim margin. For the third time since the Civil War, the Republicans won a majority of the delegates, electing prominent New Yorker Elihu Root as convention president. The 1915 convention was held in the midst of the Progressive Movement; not surprisingly, its work reflected that movement. The Constitution it proposed, grounded as it was on a philosophy of expertise, efficiency, and economy, reflected the ideas of leading reformers who extolled the virtues of business and the British parliamentary system. The Constitution proposed by that convention:

  • Significantly reorganized and consolidated the executive branch of government;
  • Implemented a short ballot, meaning fewer offices would be elected statewide;
  • Adopted an executive budget, in which the governor would control most aspects of the budget process and priorities;
  • Took some steps to move the government away from a principle of separation of powers, allowing more coordination between the executive and legislative branches;
  • Inserted an Equal Protection Clause, likely modeled after the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
This Constitution was rejected by the voters.

At the same election at which the 1915 convention was to submit its proposed Constitution, a legislatively initiated amendment granting women’s suffrage was also scheduled to appear. The convention was also considering a women’s suffrage amendment. To avoid confusion and in deference to the legislatively initiated proposal, it took no action. The amendment was defeated; but the defeat would be temporary as women would be granted the right to vote in New York in 1917 when the voters approved a second legislatively initiated amendment.

The defeat of the convention’s work did not end the push for reform. Between 1917 and 1938, a number of the most important measures proposed in 1915 were adopted through legislative amendment, including a reorganization of the judiciary (1925), executive consolidation and the short ballot (1925), an executive budget (1927), and a four-year term for the governor (1937). Governor Al Smith, a delegate at the 1915 convention, Robert Moses, and Belle Moskowitz were the prime movers in this reshaping of New York government in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

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