Alaska’s constitutional convention question, explained
For three months during the winter of 1955 and 1956, 55 delegates from around Alaska met at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to create the state’s founding document.
One of them was Vic Fischer, 31 years old at the time.
“We all had the same goal: Do everything possible to become a state,” he said at his Anchorage home in late August. “We had a totally unified goal. We were doing a job for the future of Alaska. And the key to that was that it was a totally non-partisan politics convention…it’s hard to imagine that today.”
At 98, Fischer is the last surviving delegate from Alaska’s first and only constitutional convention. He said that, being late to the statehood game, the Alaska delegates had the benefit of pulling the best parts from other states’ constitutions and learning from past mistakes.
“[Alaska’s Constitution] is very much like the United States Constitution in that it is short and specific, laying out the foundation for the state without going into a lot of detail that would have required changes,” Fischer said.
The 12,000-word document has been updated 28 times since its passage, with voter-approved amendments to allow for the Permanent Fund, prohibit sex discrimination and create a right to privacy clause, for example. But changing the constitution on a broader and more fundamental level requires a constitutional convention. The state Legislature can call one at any time, and Alaska is also one of 14 states that regularly asks voters directly. The once-per-decade vote is constitutionally mandated and will appear on the ballot this November.
Fischer said the delegates wanted to give people in the future a way to revise the constitution, “so we wouldn’t have a document that just sat on a shelf somewhere and stayed unchanged.”
Other states have held constitutional conventions since statehood, as recently as 1986. But in Alaska, the constitutional convention question is usually voted down by a wide margin, with one exception. In 1970, voters narrowly approved a convention, a vote that was later overturned in court because the ballot language was deemed misleading. When the question came before voters again two years later, it was voted down.
But this year questions about the PFD, Alaska’s fiscal woes and abortion access have some saying now is the time to vote yes, while others say the document continues to serve the state well.
As a co-chair of Defend Our Constitution, Fischer sits firmly in the latter camp. He can imagine a time when a constitutional convention could be necessary, but right now he worries about the cost, the current political climate and the possibility of outside interests and money influencing changes.
“A new constitutional convention can take the existing convention and dump it, just start from scratch and do something completely different. And I’m not sure that makes any sense when we have the best constitution in the United States, which has worked extremely well,” he said.
But Republican state Sen. Robert Myers, who represents North Pole and part of Fairbanks, disagrees.
“Really, what we’ve seen over the last few years is some very significant changes in our economy and how things operate in Alaska, and our constitution needs to reflect some of those changes,” he said over Zoom.
Myers sees a constitutional convention as an opportunity for long-term planning to address fiscal questions around spending caps, the PFD and taxation.
“Ultimately, you know, the the Legislature for the last six or eight years has really been so focused on just dealing with the budget crisis and what’s coming down the pike next that it hasn’t really had the time and the opportunity to sit down and say, ‘Alright, what’s our state going to look like for the next 20 or 30 years?’”
Myers isn’t alone. A group of conservative activists and politicians have joined forces to create a formal campaign called “Convention Yes,” to advocate for the vote, and not just to address fiscal issues. The recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade has some looking at how Alaska’s right to privacy clause protects abortion access.
Advocates like Alaskan Independence Party chairman Bob Bird want to look at changing Alaska’s judicial system, altering the education system, and more. The party even has a model constitution on their website.
“The PFD is the spark. But when you get the spark like that, and there’s no limit to what a constitutional convention might produce, then we can look at the incredibly long list of things that need correction,” Bird said from a classroom at the Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage, where he often lectures.
“The people get to control whether or not there will be a constitutional convention, and then we’ll get to vote as to who our delegates will be. And then we’re going to get the vote as to whether we like what is produced by the convention.”
Still, a yes vote raises a lot of questions, like how much it would cost, when it would be held and how delegates would be chosen. One white paper put an estimated cost above $16 million. The constitution allows the Legislature to outline the process in more detail, but if they don’t, the call for the convention is supposed to adhere as closely as possible to the 1955 convention.
Alaskans could spend all that money and time, and then reject the changes at the polls. Former Republican state Sen. Cathy Giessel said it’s too risky.
“This is not the right time, with emotions running high on so many different issues, to try to sit down and craft a solid document that would continue to provide stability and a positive future for our state,” Giessel, who’s running for state Senate right now, said at her Anchorage home.
Giessel, like Fischer, is a co-chair of Defend Our Constitution. The broad-based group includes activists, Alaska Native leaders and current and former politicians across the political spectrum. Giessel sees many strengths to Alaska’s current constitution like strong protections for privacy, local governmental control and a robust section on natural resource management.
“It has carried us through devastating earthquakes, unimaginable floods everywhere and really difficult economic times,” she said. “It has been a firm foundation, and I would like to see that firm foundation stay in place.”
Voters will decide whether to hold the first convention since statehood on Nov. 8.
This story is from Alaska Public Media, our partner station in Anchorage.