Losing on a tie vote
Published Friday, February 17, 2006 11:39 AM EST

Your Help Is Needed Immediately! Call your legislatures

Tie goes to the runner in baseball, but in legislation a tie vote is a loser. Constitutional reform in Alabama suffered a loss Wednesday in Montgomery.

It was just a committee vote on an issue that hasn't energized Alabama citizens, but the 7-7 vote in the House Constitution and Elections Committee is another frustrating setback for constitutional reform advocates in the state.

The bill that failed to get out of committee because of the tie vote would put a referendum on the Nov. 7 general election ballot for the people of Alabama to decide if they wanted to call a convention to rewrite the state's constitution. This was not a vote on a new constitution. It was not a vote on who would draw up a new constitution. This was simply a vote to determine if the people of the state recognize the need for a new constitution.

To hear opponents of constitutional reform tell it, the only people who want a new constitution in Alabama are newspaper editors and academic eggheads. If they really believe that, why are they so dead set against gauging how millions of individual Alabama citizens feel about the issue of constitutional reform?

It would seem the referendum that was stalled in committee this week would be exactly what they want - an opportunity to have their position on a new constitution validated by the people.

Except the powers that be aren't that confident about how the people might choose to vote on a given issue. That's why Alabama has a constitution that concentrates most of the power in Montgomery, and why those who benefit from the inequities of the state's current basic charter are so averse to wholesale changes in the constitution.

One of the most enduring myths of Montgomery is that the best way to effect constitutional reform in the state is to let the legislature go through the document section by section. If this is such a practical approach, why isn't it already being used? The only constitutional article the legislature has rewritten covers the judiciary, and that effort was tied up in court. That's not a joke. That's how effectively legislators function when it comes to reform. It's easy to criticize Alabama legislators, but they aren't fools. They aren't about to bite the hand that feeds them.

A constitutional convention is not a new idea. Alabama has had six constitutions, all of them written by conventions. The six is a somewhat deceptive number for a state that is still less than 200 years old. Three of the state constitutions had to do with secession, the Civil War and Reconstruction. The last three constitutions went into effect after being approved by a vote of the citizenry.

Here's what is so perplexing about the obstinate opposition to constitutional reform in the state: Who's afraid of the will of the people? After all, whose constitution is it? The preamble to the Alabama Constitution begins, as does the U.S. Constitution, with this phrase, "We the people of ..."

It's the people's constitution, not the legislature's, not the special interests', not the bureaucracy's. The constitution exists for a given set of purposes, which school children a generation ago memorized: "... in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" in the federal constitution's preamble and "in order to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" in the state charter's preamble.

These are noble aspirations. In the preamble to the Alabama Constitution, those purposes are followed by these words, "invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God ..." That's how serious Alabama citizens more than a century ago took the adoption of a constitution. To hear opponents of constitutional reform tell it today, nobody, except eggheads and editors, really cares. That's hard to accept. Horse-drawn buggies, outhouses and sharecropping were the standard in 1901. The people of Alabama have moved forward in those areas of human existence. They would not accept the transportation, sanitation and socioeconomic realities of 1901 today, so why is it so unacceptable to offer them the opportunity to write a constitution that conforms to contemporary reality?

The 7-7 vote in committee isn't the end of the reform movement, but it indicates how tedious the task of reform will be.

« back