UPDATED 5:47 a.m. 01/04/12

Hawaii voters say the wealthy are calling the shots in Congress.

A recent Civil Beat poll found that nearly two-thirds of Hawaii registered voters believe that corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals have the most influence over who is elected to Congress, not the citizens who cast their ballots on Election Day.

And once in office, 79 percent of Hawaii voters said, most members of Congress make more of their decisions and choices in the interests of the people or organizations who donated the most money to their campaigns, not the residents of their state or district.

The automated telephone poll of 1,269 registered voters conducted by Civil Beat on Dec. 4 and 5 found that although 88 percent of Hawaii voters think every American should have the same power to influence elections, just 26 percent think that’s the case today.

The Civil Beat Poll comes at a time when dissatisfaction with Congress is at record levels and the political fundraising floodgates have been opened because of a 2010 Supreme Court decision. The poll found that voters in Hawaii don’t believe that most members of Congress are representing their constituents.

Instead, 56 percent said members of Congress work hardest to represent the interests of the wealthy. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent.

Approximately two-thirds of Hawaii voters said members of Congress should work hardest to represent all citizen equally, regardless of their position in society, because that’s what’s most fair. Ten percent said members of Congress should work hardest to represent the poor, 20 percent the middle class and 2 percent the wealthy. Five percent were not sure.

But when it came to the question whose interests members of Congress actually work hardest to represent, the numbers were flipped, with just 11 percent saying all citizens equally. The number for the poor remained consistent, at 11 percent, but the middle class dropped to 5 percent and the number of those who weren’t sure soared, to 18 percent.

Who Has Influence? Voters or Donors?

The poll found that Hawaii voters believe that large campaign donations made by corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals have more influence than the voting public on determining who is elected to Congress. Just a quarter of respondents said voters have the most influence, 26 percent, versus 64 percent who said donors. Ten percent were not sure.

The consensus about who had the most influence ran counter to attitudes about who should be able to influence an election. Eighty-eight percent said “every American should have the same power to influence an election regardless of their income.” Just 4 percent said it’s OK for corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals to have more influence over the outcome of an election. Seven percent were not sure.

When asked who had the most influence on the choices and decisions that most members of Congress make, just 11 percent said the voters who put them in office, 79 percent said the people or organizations that donated the most to their campaigns. Ten percent were unsure.

Hawaii Findings Reflect National Research

The findings are consistent with a recent Pew Research Center poll that found 77 percent of American adults believe rich people and powerful corporations have too much power, with 61 percent saying the nation’s economic system unfairly favors the wealthy.

When it comes to influence over who is elected to Congress, men and women share the same view: Donors.

Just 25 percent of men and women said voters. The young, those 18-34, are more likely to say donors, with 80 percent answering donors and just 13 percent picking voters. Voters over 65 put more faith in the power of voters, but still just 27 percent chose that group over donors, who were cited by 60 percent.

In terms of who should have more power, respondents were united across gender, party and age, with about 90 percent saying every American should have the same power to influence an election regardless of their income. The only break in that unity appeared to come with education, where the 90 percent figure for high school and college graduates dropped to 66 percent for respondents with no high school diploma.

Today just 0.35 percent of Americans over the age of 18 donate more than $200 to federal political candidates, parties or PACS. But the perception among Hawaii voters is that wealthy donors have a disproportionate impact on elections and on the decisions and choices of the people who represent the nation in Congress, according to the Civil Beat Poll.

The money to support the campaigns of members of Congress is typically not coming from their districts.

A study of the 2004 election found that 70 percent of U.S. House campaign contributions came from outside the district, and only one in five congressional districts provided the majority of contributions to candidates running to represent that district.

Hawaii Congresswomen Respond to Results

In response to questions about the poll, Rep. Mazie Hirono said Congress needs to show greater openness and transparency, for example by banning insider trading by members.

“People in Hawaii tell me they’re frustrated by what they see going on in Washington,” Hirono wrote in an email. “I’m right there with them. Right now, what we need to be focusing on is creating jobs.  It’s disappointing that so many of my colleagues are more interested in fighting ideological fights instead of doing what’s best for American families. These fights may make for great sound bites on TV, but they do nothing to get our economy moving.”

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa blames the problem on “a divided government.”

“Republicans control the House, while Democrats control the Senate and the White House,” she wrote in an email. “That means there is going to be a certain amount of give-and-take on issues and some significant philosophical disagreements. Observers in the community see that as a logjam and think that someone else must be pulling Congress’ strings. They think, “I know what I need, and they’re not providing it.”

Asked what could be done to change the public’s attitude, Hanabusa said Congress needed to focus on improving the lives of the middle class.

“That means protecting Social Security and Medicare, making sure people have access to medical care, building the economy and, especially now, ensuring that the unemployed have access to benefits,” she wrote.

Hirono responded that creating jobs and improving the economy are what’s needed.

“The people of Hawaii and I are tired of Washington’s ideological stand-off,” she wrote. “We want results.  In this environment, that means creating good paying jobs, getting Americans back to work, and building a strong foundation for our economy. That would spell success for the American public.”

Senators Decline Comment

Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka declined to comment about the poll.

Since 1989, Inouye has received 62 percent of his individual contributions from individuals from out-of-state, according to the Influence Explorer website. PACs gave him 34 percent of his total contributions during that time, with the biggest PAC donations coming from Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and Boeing.

Since 1989, Akaka has received 31 percent1 of his individual contributions from individuals from out-of-state, according to Influence Explorer. PACs gave him 49 percent of his total contributions during that time, with the biggest PAC donations coming from the Longshoremen’s Union, Alexander & Baldwin and the Airline Pilots Association.

  • Adrienne LaFrance contributed to this report.


Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

About the Author