Ballot questions in Md., Va.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

MAYBE IT'S BECAUSE we're editors by trade, but nothing would seem more tempting, and salutary, than a top-to-bottom rewrite of Maryland's constitution, which is bloated, unwieldy, antiquated and intermittently impenetrable. Rambling on for 47,000 words, eight times longer than the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Free State's charter is a jumble of obsolete miscellany and high-minded principle. Its 200-odd amendments run from the sublime to the ridiculous to the bizarre; one enshrines Baltimore's inalienable right to regulate the terms of off-street parking.

The document seems ripe for revision, which is what proponents of a constitutional convention had in mind by placing a ballot question before Maryland voters next Tuesday. The ballot question asks whether to call a convention whose purpose would be to produce a new and improved (or at least different) document, which itself would be submitted for voter approval at a later date.

That's the theory. And, like Thomas Jefferson, who believed that constitutions should be torn up and remade every 20 years or so, we don't have a problem with the theory. It's the probable reality that gives us pause.

The problems start with the cost, which would inevitably run into multiple millions of dollars; after all, a constitutional convention would involve the election of scores of delegates and creation of dizzying amounts of paperwork - and might drag on for years. Beyond that, the chances of success are slight; the potential is vast for an endless, irresolvable brawl over practically any and every inflammatory issue in American politics. As political spectacle, a convention might be entertaining. As an exercise in problem-solving, it would probably be futile. The last one to take place in Maryland, in 1968, was a flop.

For those who want to redraft state laws governing abortion, redistricting, gun rights, gay marriage or any other issue, the means to do so already exist in Maryland's General Assembly. Creating a costly new elected body - populated by who-knows-which delegates and regulated by who-knows-what rules - is highly unlikely to produce the cogent, concise new constitution that advocates imagine.

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