What is the Constitutional Convention Question on the Iowa Ballot?

The 2020 Iowa ballot contains one issue that needs some explanation: the Constitutional Convention question.  As required by state law, this question must be on the ballot every ten years.  The constitutional convention process was intended to make changes to the state Constitution that the legislature refused to make.  There have been no serious attempts at holding a constitutional convention since 1960.

If the ballot question passes, the legislature would have to write and approve a law for the election of delegates and funding of the convention.  Then, the convention could propose and would vote on any number of changes to the state constitution.  Each amendment that was approved at the convention would then be sent to Iowa voters for final approval.  Given the number of places the process can break down and revert to the status quo, the likelihood of any changes to the constitution happening even if the ballot question were to pass is slim.

Risks and Rewards

The Convention Question was designed to make major changes to the state constitution.  Some of these changes could be very beneficial: in 1960, the Iowa Federation of Labor supported a constitutional convention as a way to remove Iowa’s right-to-work laws, and the League of Women Voters supported it in order to make the legislature more representative of urban interests (see an analysis of the vote here).  In 1960, the question narrowly failed.  It passed in 1920 in order to change apportionment of the Iowa state assembly so that at least one house represented population rather than area; a constitutional convention was never held because the legislature couldn’t agree on how to elect delegates, and then argued that the changes they passed in 1921 made a convention unnecessary.

Many groups argue against holding a convention because of the risks of unwanted amendments finding their way into the constitution. Both major political parties are concerned that extreme views could end up enshrined in the constitution – abortion restrictions, gay marriage bans, public fund spending restrictions, allocating funds for conservation, and restoring voting rights to those with felony convictions have all been recently proposed amendments. In addition, the legislature’s control over how the election of delegates would happen is worrisome.

The bottom line is: If you believe the state constitution is acceptable as written, or are concerned that delegates and voters will alter the constitution in unacceptable ways, you should vote against holding a convention.  If you support changes to the constitution that the legislature will not pass and trust voters to choose correctly, you should vote for the convention.