Let’s say you are a registered voter living in Palolo Valley on Oahu, and that you are committed to performing your civic duty Aug. 11 by voting in Hawaii’s primary.

As an independent-minded voter, you’ve decided to vote for nonpartisan candidate Heath Beasley for the U.S. Senate, Republican Charles Djou for the 1st Congressional District, Green Party candidate Keiko Bonk for House District 20 and Democrat Les Ihara for Senate District 10.

When you arrive at your precinct at Palolo Elementary or Jarrett Middle School, however, you are told by officials that you can only choose one party’s slate of candidates. That means that if you decide you want to vote for an independent candidate, like Beasley, you couldn’t vote for anyone in any other race who is running as a Democrat, Republican or Green. You could still vote for mayor or city council, because those are nonpartisan races to begin with.

It’s called an “open primary,” yet voter options are limited.

It upsets independent candidates, who have to persuade voters to break their habit of voting for Democrats or Republicans and make the choice of not voting for anyone else in the primary races that have party candidates.

It also bothers party leaders who believe voters should support the party that best represents their values rather than cross over to vote for other candidates.

There are indications Hawaii’s open primary also dampens voter turnout. Voting rates have dropped significantly since delegates at the 1978 Constitutional Convention (or “Con Con”) decided to keep an open-primary system in order to preserve secrecy of voting and to safeguard the choice of party affiliation or nonpartisanship.

Many voters remain confused about the primary ballot, in spite of educational efforts on the part of the state Office of Elections.

Primary Considerations

Hawaii’s open primary means that any registered voter in the state can vote for any party’s slate regardless of what party — if any — they identify with. (Hawaii no longer requires voters to register with parties.)

A “closed primary” is usually defined as a primary where only party members can vote. By other definitions, Hawaii might be said to have a “semi-open” primary, meaning that voters choose party preference in the privacy of the voting booth.

The Office of Elections calls it a single party primary, and it’s conducted according to Hawaii Revised Statutes:

No person eligible to vote in any primary or special primary election shall be required to state a party preference or nonpartisanship as a condition of voting. Each voter shall be issued the primary or special primary ballot for each party and the nonpartisan primary or special primary ballot. A voter shall be entitled to vote only for candidates of one party or only for nonpartisan candidates. If the primary or special primary ballot is marked contrary to this paragraph, the ballot shall not be counted.

When you pick up your two-sided ballot this primary election, you will see sections designated for Democratic Party candidates, Republicans and independents. The 2012 ballots will resemble the 2010 in that the front of the ballot will feature step-by-step instructions. (Mailed ballots will also include a separate instruction sheet, and instructions will also be placed in voting booths.

The ballot itself will include a section where voters check off the box of the party they are going to vote for. If a voter then ends up choosing candidates from other parties — or a combination — only the votes for the selected party will count.

For a time, different colors were used to differentiate between the different party ballots.

In Hawaii’s general election, voters are not restricted to party and can choose whom they please (as long as they don’t pick more than one candidate running for the same office, of course).

The ’78 Con Con delegates did consider closed primaries as well as blanket primaries, the latter allowing voters to select from among all candidates. Supporters of a blanket primary argued that voters should be allowed to vote for the person they thought was the best candidate regardless of party.

“They also state that the current party selection process is not effective and does not allow for party input,” according to committee reports from the Con Con.

Interestingly, blanket primary supporters also argued, “If the primary election is only for the purpose of party selection, public moneys should not be utilized.”

Con Con supporters of an open primary said it allowed for independent voters to participate but also recognized “that our present political system was founded on the principle of political parties and thus presents a compromise between the other systems.”

Ultimately, the Con Con committee handling the primary question recommended sticking with an open primary because it could not find conclusive evidence that one system was better than the others. But the committee also said it was “cognizant of the fact that there are inherent problems in all primary systems.”

One other note: The Con Con called for the addition of the words “None of the Above” below the names of candidates standing for office — allowing voters to express their dissatisfaction “and to encourage new candidates to enter that race to capitalize on such feelings.”

Those words are not on current ballots, though the elections office does count blank votes.

Turnout Falls

Despite the best intentions of Con Con delegates, primary turnout did not improve after 1978.

Turnout in 1959, the year of statehood, was 84 percent. It ebbed and flowed in subsequent years but never exceeded the ’59 numbers.

By 1980, primary turnout was down to about 68 percent, a drop of 6 percentage points from 1978, the year of the Con Con. In 2008 turnout came in at a dismal 37 percent — the lowest ever for Hawaii — though it inched up to about 43 percent in 2010.

Falling turnout rates are not necessarily the outcome of an open primary. As Civil Beat’s recent series on the vanishing voter makes clear, reasons include apathy and a sense that individual votes don’t make a difference.

Nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Hawaii is among 11 states employing an open primary. Another 11 states have closed primaries while 24 use a “hybrid” that falls somewhere between open and closed.

Four other states, including California, use what’s known as a “top two” primary system, in which all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, are listed on one ballot.

“Voters choose their favorite candidate, and the top two vote-getters become the candidates in the general election,” says NCSL. “Proponents say that top-two primaries give independent voters an equal voice and may help elect more moderate candidates from the major parties. Opponents argue that it can reduce ballot access for third party candidates and lessen voter choice in that two Democrats or two Republicans could be the only candidates in the general election.”

The Center for Voting and Democracy’s Fairvote.org breaks down the state-by-state comparison by congressional and presidential primaries.

Rob Richie, executive director for the Maryland-based center, said blanket primaries were used in Washington state and, for a short period, in California. But the U.S. Supreme Court found the primaries violated the 1st Amendment protection of the right to association.

Richie said that states in the west are increasingly moving toward nonpartisan elections, in contrast to the East Coast, where even mayors for New York City still run under party labels.

Dissatisfaction With Current System

Kanohowailuku Helm, a nonpartisan candidate for the District 7 state Senate seat held by Democrat Kalani English, doesn’t like Hawaii’s open primary.

That’s because he has to pick up at least 10 percent of the vote in his district or else he doesn’t advance to the general election.

Teaming with Molokai filmmaker PF Bentley, Helm has produced a series of sharp, short video clips explaining his dilemma and informing supporters what they need to do when they vote. If they decide to vote Democrat, they cannot vote for Helm.

Why?

“Majority party doesn’t like competition,” Helm says in the video, titled “What Country Is This?”

Helm means the Democratic Party of Hawaii. But the chair of that party, Dante Carpenter, doesn’t like the current system, either.

“We’ve always had a concern about crossover voting — those who would confuse or confound for the pure hell of it rather than in support of a party person,” he said. “There is a large contingent of the Democratic Party in favor of reverting to a one-party or closed primary. We call it a ‘pure party primary.'”

Carpenter’s counterpart in the Hawaii Republican Party, David Chang, also doesn’t like crossover votes, which are often cast with the intention of electing the weaker primary candidate to help their preferred candidate in the general.

“I’ve been telling people that it’s not a good idea,” he said. “I can see what they are saying, and their heart is in the right place that they want Republicans to win, but I say, ‘Let Democrats figure out for themselves who to vote for. Vote for candidates with Republican values.’ We want consistency.”

Indeed, Chang sent out a letter earlier this month to party members in Senate District 25 urging them to vote for Republican Fred Hemmings, who is unopposed, instead of pulling the Democratic ballot to vote in the hot race between Laura Thielen, incumbent Pohai Ryan and a third Democrat.

“These candidates hope to overcome their Democrat Primary opponents with Republican assistance,” wrote Chang, adding, “Let the Democrats pick among their lesser candidates. Give your vote and your whole hearted support to Fred Hemmings at every stage of the campaign.”

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