Alaskans are asked every 10 years whether they want to hold another constitutional convention. The question is usually defeated by a wide margin, but polling this year shows it’s a closer race. Campaigns on both sides are investing time and money to fight for votes, although the no campaign is outspending the yes side by a wide margin.
Victoria Miller is a nurse based in Anchorage and she’s voting “no” on whether Alaska should hold another constitutional convention.
“I’m really concerned that it’s going to be changing the reproductive rights here in Alaska,” Miller said. “I’ve done some research about the people that are really encouraging this and are kind of behind the proposal. And they’re people that definitely want to limit reproductive rights in Alaska.”
Miller is among the 46% of Alaskans who responded “no” to a recent AARP poll that asked whether they want the state to hold another constitutional convention. That’s a lot lower than the 67% percent of Alaskans who voted against a convention the last time it was on the ballot. 30% said “yes,” which is about the same percentage that has voted yes in recent decades. The rest of the respondents said they didn’t know, were unsure or declined to answer.
While none of the pro-convention Alaskans who answered the poll agreed to an interview for this story, on a recent edition of The Talk of the Kenai, a program on commercial radio station KSRM, several supporters laid out key reasons they are voting “yes” this year, including a chance to write the Permanent Fund dividend into the constitution.
“Let’s get it out of the hands of people trying to make merchandise of it and put it into the constitution,” said Leon, who declined to give his last name. He said enshrining the PFD gives control to the people, instead of leaving it to the Legislature to determine every year.
Some proponents of the Convention Yes campaign, like former Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell and Alaska Family Council executive director Jim Minnery, have discussed the possibility of limiting abortion as one reason to support a convention.
Leon, the radio caller, said he wants to see the constitution amended to define life as starting at conception. And he’d like to see changes to the state’s judicial selection process.
Currently the independent Alaska Judicial Council presents a pool of candidates to the governor, who selects one. The council is made up of three members of the Alaska Bar Association, three citizens appointed by the governor, and the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. While proponents say this process ensures a nonpartisan judiciary, opponents at the conservative Alaska Watchman say it’s resulted in “liberal” decisions.
“We don’t need a self-propagating judiciary,” Leon said. “We need to have a process whereby the governor, whoever he may be, from whichever party, picks his candidate, and then they are confirmed by the senators of our state.”
Another caller, Mike, said the convention is an opportunity for Alaskans to make their voices heard. Since there would be one vote to elect delegates and another vote to approve any changes made to the document, he thinks the risk of backfire is low.
“Why the heck not? Why not give people a chance to vote and say yes, let’s look at this document,” he said. “And then if we don’t like the changes that are made by the delegates, then we say no, and if we like the changes that are made by the delegates, we say yes.”
It’s unclear whether voters would be allowed to approve any changes one by one, or whether they would have to approve the whole document at once. If a constitutional convention is approved, this detail and other mechanics of the process would have to be determined by the Legislature.
Opponents of a convention say it’s a costly, risky process with too many unknowns to be productive, especially in today’s political climate.
Miller, the nurse, said she’s concerned about the cost of holding a convention — estimates range from a few million to $20 million — and how delegates would be selected to represent all Alaskans’ viewpoints at a convention.
Richard Hancock, a retired lineman who’s lived in Two Rivers, north of Fairbanks, also responded to the AARP poll and says now isn’t the right time to open up the constitution for edits.
“I think we’re pretty divided,” he said.“[With] some of the crazy things that have been going on in politics, I think it’s just too risky,” he said.
Hancock shared Miller’s concerns about a threat to abortion rights. He also said he doesn’t want to see the PFD written into the constitution as some have suggested.
“I just think if they get it in there, you’re locked in. If something, who knows what, happens you’ll have to be pouring out that money,” he said. “It’s just short-term thinking.”
An Alaska Survey Research poll last month reported slightly different numbers from AARP, with 31% expected to vote yes and 54% expected to vote no.