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The Question of the Alaska Constitutional Convention, Explained

Delegates to the 1955 Alaska Constitutional Convention, which produced the document under which Alaska was granted statehood. (Courtesy of Anchorage Museum of Art and History)

For three months during the winter of 1955 and 1956, 55 delegates from across Alaska gathered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to create the founding act of the state.

One of them was Vic Fischer, then 31 years old.

“We all had the same goal: to do everything possible to become a state,” he said from his home in Anchorage 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 political convention… it’s hard to imagine that today.

Vic Fischer, delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, signs Alaska’s first constitution in 1955. (Courtesy Vic Fischer)

At 98, Fischer is the last surviving delegate of Alaska’s first and only constitutional convention. He said that, being behind in the state game, Alaskan delegates had the advantage of taking the best parts of other states’ constitutions and learning from past mistakes.

“[Alaska’s Constitution] is very similar to the United States Constitution in that it is short and precise, laying the foundations of the state without going into the details that would have required changes,” Fischer said.

The 12,000-word document has been updated 28 times since its passage, with amendments approved by voters to allow the Permanent Fund dividend, prohibit gender discrimination and create a right to privacy clause, for example. But changing the constitution on a broader, 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 routinely asks voters directly. Voting once a decade is constitutionally mandated and will appear on the ballot in November.

Fischer said the delegates wanted to give people in the future a way to revise the constitution, “so that we don’t have a document that sits on a shelf somewhere and remains unchanged.”

a copy of the constitution of alaska
Vic Fischer, the last surviving delegate from the original 1955 Alaska Constitutional Convention, displays a copy of the Alaska Constitution. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Other states have held constitutional conventions since the establishment of the state, as recently as 1986. But in Alaska, the issue of constitutional convention is generally dismissed by a wide margin, with one exception. In 1970, voters narrowly approved a convention, a vote that was later overturned by a court because the language of the ballot was found to be misleading. When the issue came back to voters two years later, it was voted down.

But this year, questions about the PFD, Alaska’s tax woes and abortion access have some saying it’s time to vote yes, while others say the document continues to do well. serve the state.

As co-chair of Defend our ConstitutionFischer is firmly in the latter camp. He can imagine a time when a constitutional convention might be needed, but right now he worries about the cost, the current political climate, and the possibility of outside interests and money influencing the changes.

“A new constitutional convention can take the existing convention and throw it away, start from scratch and do something completely different. And I’m not sure that makes sense when we have the best constitution in the United States, which has worked extremely well,” he said.

But Republican Senator Robert Myers, who represents the North Pole and part of Fairbanks, disagrees.

“Really what we’ve seen over the last few years are very significant changes in our economy and the way things work in Alaska, and our constitution needs to reflect some of those changes,” he said. said on Zoom.

Myers sees a constitutional convention as a long-term planning opportunity to address tax issues regarding spending limits, PFD and taxation.

“At the end of the day, you know, the Legislature for the last six or eight years has been so focused on dealing with the budget crisis and what’s coming next that they haven’t really had the time and opportunity to sit down and say, ‘Okay, what is our state going to look like in the next 20 or 30 years?’ »

Myers is not alone. A group of conservative activists and politicians have joined forces to create an official campaign called “Convention Yes”, to advocate for the vote, and not just to solve tax problems. The Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade provided an opportunity to examine how Alaska’s privacy clause protects access to abortion.

Defenders like Alaska Independence Party President Bob Bird wants to consider changing Alaska’s court system, altering the education system, etc. The party even has a model constitution on its website..

a man standing outside
Bob Bird, chairman of the Alaska Independence Party, who supports holding a new constitutional convention in Alaska. (Erin McKinstry/Special for Alaska Public Media)

“The PFD is the spark. But when you get a spark like that, and there’s no limit to what a constitutional convention could produce, then we can look at the incredibly long list of things that need to be fixed,” said Bird from a classroom at Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage, where he often lectures.

“People control whether or not there will be a constitutional convention, and then we can vote on who our delegates will be. And then we’ll have the vote on whether we like what’s produced by the convention.

Still, a yes vote raises many questions, like how much it would cost, when it would take place, and how delegates would be chosen. A white paper estimated the cost at more than $16 million. The constitution allows the legislature to outline the process in more detail, but if it does not, the convention call is meant 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 Senator Cathy Giessel said it was too risky.

a woman in a house
Former Senator Cathy Giessel, co-chair with Vic Fischer of the group Defend Our Constitution. (Erin McKinstry/Special for Alaska Public Media)

“Now is not the right time, with high emotions 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,” he said. Giessel, who is running for the State Senate. right now, said at his home in Anchorage.

Giessel, like Fischer, is co-chairman of Defend Our Constitution. The expanded group includes activists, Alaska Native leaders, and current and former politicians from all political backgrounds. Giessel sees many strengths in Alaska’s current constitution, such as strong privacy protections, local government control, and a robust section on natural resource management.

“It took us through devastating earthquakes, unimaginable flooding everywhere and really tough economic times,” she said. “It’s been a solid foundation, and I would like that solid foundation to stay in place.”

Voters will decide whether or not to hold the first convention since the state’s formation on Nov. 8.

Do you still have questions on the question of the constitutional convention on the November ballot? Just us for a free debate on Thursday, September 29 in Anchorage. You can also stream the debate online. Also, watch this FAQs on the vote and that explanatory on Alaska’s right to privacy clause and its connection to access to abortion.

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