It may be the biggest secret of the election.
It gets little attention from voters and often is overlooked as they fill out their ballots. It’s that question on the back side of Iowa ballots that asks: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution, and propose amendment or amendments to same?”
The Iowa Constitution requires the question appear on the ballot once every 10 years.
Since calling a state constitutional convention in 1844 in the lead-up to ratifying Iowa’s 1846 statehood constitution, Iowa voters twice unambiguously have approved calling post-statehood conventions under its constitution, first in 1856 and again in 1920. The constitution drafted and amended at the 1857 convention is the state's current constitution. Lawmakers decided after the 1920 vote that a convention was unnecessary and ignored the voters.
“It’s astounding how little people know a) about their constitution and b) why this is on the ballot,” said J.H. Snider, a former fellow at Harvard University and editor of The Iowa State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse.
Snider is a fan of the constitutional convention — or at least giving people the option of calling one.
The state constitution can be amended by a process that begins in the Legislature. In the most recent session, there were calls for amendments to restrict certain income tax changes, to establish that the constitution does not secure a right to an abortion, to limit general fund spending, to define the gubernatorial line of succession, to establish rights to keep and bear arms, and to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife, and to make the channel catfish the state fish.
However, Snider argued, there is a need for a way the public can bypass the Legislature.
The framers “didn’t want to give so much power to the Legislature that they could control all future amendments. They saw that as a problem,” Snider said.
It might have been a problem back then, but Iowa State University political science Professor Mack Shelley isn’t sure that still applies.
“Arguably, it does have a 19th century feel to it,” said Shelley, who has been teaching American government, public policy and voting behavior at ISU since 1979.
In general, Shelley said, constitutions were written to be difficult to change. The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times in more than 240 years, with 10 of those amendments — the Bill of Rights — coming in one fell swoop.
Iowa’s constitution has been amended 48 times in nearly 174 years. The most recent was a 2010 amendment to dedicate three-eights of a cent of the next state sales tax increase to natural resources. Shelley noted that despite approval by legislators and then by voters, no such tax has been raised.
Typically, he said, support for a constitutional convention has been driven by a volatile issue. After the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage, some people in 2010 called for a convention to put forward a constitutional prohibition.
“It was hot-button issue, but it wasn’t enough to get them over the threshold,” Shelley said. In fact, the vote wasn’t close — 67 percent of voters rejected a constitutional convention. Same-sex marriage opponents did, however, vote out three Supreme Court justices who were part of the unanimous opinion.
Opponents of constitutional conventions frequently cite the “Pandora’s box” argument. Whatever the intentions of those promoting the convention, they have little or no control over the outcome.
A convention “opens the door, in a literal sense, to anything and everything,” Shelley said.
However, Snider contends there’s a “smorgasbord of issues where the Legislature for a variety of reasons is ill-suited” to address constitutional changes.
“For them it’s a Pandora’ box,” Snider said about legislators and the political interest groups that work closely with them. “It’s risky because they’ve got control in those relationships, so they don’t want something that’s not in their control.”
The constitutional convention question has drawn little attention this year.
Neither the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board nor Ballotpedia, the online clearinghouse of political and election-related information, report any committees registered in support of or in opposition to the measure.
That could change in the future, Shelley speculated, if the U.S. Supreme Court were to strike down the Affordable Care Act or overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision.
“I think that would likely trickle down to the Iowa level and there could be a push in 2030 for something like criminalizing abortion,” he said. However, he added, “If you have to wait 10 years, it could be more effective to try to push it through Legislature.”
Either way, the question will be back on the ballot in 10 years.
Editor's note: Since calling a state constitutional convention in 1844 in the lead-up to ratifying Iowa’s 1846 statehood constitution, Iowa voters twice unambiguously have approved calling post-statehood conventions under its constitution, first in 1856 and again in 1920. An earlier version of this article did not include the earlier vote.