Editorial: Constitutional Chaos by Design in Alabama

By the editorial board of The Anniston Star

By the time Alabama voters have their say on Nov. 6, Alabama’s state Constitution could grow by 16 more amendments. By our count, the Constitution is inching toward four digits, meaning 1,000 amendments to a document that was ratified in 1901.

Oh, if we’re counting words, the Alabama Constitution is closing in on almost 400,000 words. The Texas Constitution, Alabama’s closest competition when it comes to lengthy state constitutions, clocks in at a mere 88,000 words. They say everything is bigger in the Lone Star State, but they haven’t seen Bama’s governing document, right?

None of this makes sense, you might say to yourself. How is it that a state and a people who are generally allergic to more government have a Constitution with so many amendments?

The answer is that the Alabama Constitution and its nearly 1,000 amendments are working just the way its drafters wanted. In 1901, the state’s constitutional convention was working from a very basic script: (1.) Disenfranchise black people by taking away their vote and making them second-class citizens; and (2.) ensure the state’s rich and powerful Big Mules remained both rich and powerful.

So, the Constitution strips what would otherwise be purely local decision-making from local governments and hands that power to 105 state representatives and 35 state senators. Let’s face it. It’s much easier for powerful special interests to keep their thumbs on a majority of 35 senators and a majority of 105 representatives. It’s much more difficult to bottle up policies that are unpopular with the Big Mules across the state’s 67 counties and more than a hundred cities.

The whole system of disenfranchisement of African-Americans has been set aside by federal legislations and federal court decisions. The unwieldy, top-down process of governing is still going strong.

Thus, Alabama’s November ballot will include 16 matters that apply to only one county and that will be voted on only by that county’s voters. A smarter way might be for commissioners in those counties to take a vote on those issues. After all, county voters elect county commissioners. At most, a county could put a non-constitutional referendum before county voters to settle a particularly sticky dispute. The one thing we’re sure of is that an amendment setting up the distance between bingo parlors and homes in Calhoun County has no business clogging up the state Constitution. That’s a real issue, by the way, and it’s not a trivial one. There must be a balance between businesses and the rights of homeowners. Our beef is making it an amendment to the Constitution.

Toss in the amendments meant to rile up voters — in 2018, voters will weigh in on the display of the Ten Commandments and banning of abortion — and it’s easy to see how the state Constitution got so big.

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