One of the bottom-of-the-ballot questions Iowa voters will decide today is whether to convene a constitutional convention.  

The question is posed at the beginning of every decade and 1920 was the last time Iowa voters decided to convene a constitutional convention. However, the convention was never held because the legislature didn’t set it up.

In 2010, a group of conservatives has formed “Call the Convention” to urge voters to check “yes” for convening a constitutional convention. The Iowa Catholic Conference is urging Iowa Catholics to do the same. Both groups are hoping the convention speeds the process of proposing an amendment to Iowa’s constitution which would ban same-sex marriage in Iowa. 

“We have a board of about 25 people — the bishops of Iowa and then lay people and priests from across the state — and we had a good discussion about it because there are some pros and the cons,” says Tom Chapman, a spokesman for the Iowa Catholic Conference. “But our political advice is, you know, ‘Let’s move forward with a convention, have that debate,’ and then we’re going to, quite honestly, depend on the people of Iowa to vote ‘yes’ on the good things and vote ‘no’ on the bad things when it comes out.”

The 2011 legislature would get to decide the set-up of the convention, but delegates to the event could propose any number of amendments to the constitution — or even write a whole new constitution.  That’s what has prompted the Iowa Farm Bureau to run an ad campaign opposing the constitutional convention. The farm group fears out of state interests like The Humane Society would try to impose new restrictions on livestock management or crop cultivation through a reworking of the state constitution.

Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt says constitutional conventions are “very rare” in the United States. 

“The U.S. is a young country, so perhaps the reason they’re rare is because once you write a constitution, you try to make it work as long as you can,” Schmidt says. “On the other hand in other countries constitutional conventions to basically change some major structural of things are fairly common and some countries have many constitutions. They’re re-done frequently, but it’s not an American tradition.”

However, Schmidt says 2010 is an “extraordinary” year and a constitutional convention might be embraced by a majority of voters. Critics suggest a constitutional convention would open up a “Pandora’s Box’ of issues and Schmidt says the rules for convening the event don’t impose any limits. 

“You can end up with a monarchy, you know? You can end up with a unicameral legislature,” Schmidt says. “Certainly what would happen in 2010 is that all the interest groups that have a stake in how the constitution looks would raise huge amounts of money from out of state to try and influence how that thing is written and it could be very awkward.” 

But supporters of a constitutional convention reject that “Pandora’s Box” argument and counter that Iowans can trust themselves to pass sound constitutional amendments. In addition, the group “Call the Convention” says that in this year’s “climate of outrage at politicians” it is important to give Iowans a voice in pressing forward with constitutional amendments like the one banning same-sex marriage which have been tabled by the legislature.