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Rhode Island could become the first state in 30 years to hold a constitutional convention

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Rhode Island state senators voted unanimously on Wednesday to ask voters for permission to revamp the state constitution next year in an effort to modernize key elements of state government.

The Senate passed one measure that would put a proposal to hold a state constitutional convention on November’s ballot, and one measure that would create a 12-person bipartisan panel to prepare for the convention. State House Speaker Gordon Fox (D) has said he thinks voters should consider a convention, making passage through the lower chamber likely.

The 12-member panel would decide which issues to consider in a convention. Supporters want to give future governors a line-item veto, and to change a provision in the current constitution that allows voters to cast an entire ballot for members of one party by checking a single box, known as “master lever” or straight-ticket voting.

If voters approve a constitutional convention, they would have to vote again in a special election to choose one delegate from each of the state’s 75 state House districts. Voters would then be asked to ratify any constitutional changes the delegates approve. A convention would likely take place in 2015 or 2016, if voters give their okay on this year’s ballot.

Rhode Island has held 11 constitutional conventions before, most recently in 1984, the Providence Journal reported. Rhode Island’s full constitution took effect in 1843, the first time the document had been updated since the royal charter granted in 1663.

It’s not uncommon for states to update their constitutions, though a full-scale overhaul hasn’t happened for quite some time. Georgia was the last state to adopt a new constitution, its ninth, in 1983. Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, Montana and Louisiana all adopted new constitutions in the 1970s, while Michigan, Connecticut and Florida adopted new versions of their own charters in the 1960s.

The constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the oldest document governing a state, dating back to 1780. Massachusetts is among 20 states still operating under their original constitutions.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.



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