In the 2008 Democratic presidential preference poll in Hawaii, U.S. Rep. Mark Takai — then a state legislator — remembers making a rushed trip to a copy store to make more ballots for his precinct. It wasn’t his job, but with voters flooding in to vote for Barack Obama, it was clear there weren’t enough.

“And they still ran out of ballots,” he recalled Monday at a Civil Beat Editorial Board meeting, noting that in the end, voters were reduced to making handmade ballots out of scratch paper.

Saturday’s poorly organized poll was an improvement over 2008, but not by much. Rather than continuing with a party-run poll with poorly understood rules and credibility that in a close race could easily be called into question, it’s time to get rid of the preference poll and move to a formal primary, as most other states have done over the past 100 years.

The key differences: Caucuses are sets of local gatherings. typically run by the parties, in which voters openly discuss and decide what candidate to support and then choose delegates for a nominating convention. Primaries are statewide, usually  state-run voting processes in which, similar to general elections, voters cast secret ballots to select candidates and delegates.

Volunteer Gayle Fox collects ballots at District 23 Manoa Elementary School cafeteria. 26 march 2016.
Volunteer Gayle Fox collects ballots at Manoa Elementary on Saturday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

We’re not alone in believing a primary system for both Democrats and Republicans would represent an upgrade in how Hawaii makes its preferences known in presidential nominating races. Takai called for the change in his meeting at Civil Beat, and more and more people are raising the idea on social media and in other public forums.

Caucuses once were the standard method for choosing presidential candidates in the United States. After the Electoral College elected George Washington in 1789 and 1792, America’s party system emerged, with caucuses choosing presidential nominees beginning in 1796.

But in the early 20th century, a movement to give more power to ordinary citizens in choosing party nominees emerged, resulting in a national movement toward primaries. Today, 37 states plus the District of Columbia, Democrats Abroad and Puerto Rico all hold presidential primaries.

There are two basic flavors of primary voting: Open, in which voters affiliated with any party are welcome to vote in any party’s primary, and closed, in which only registered party voters may take part. There are variations on the basic concept, and it would be up to state lawmakers and party leaders to decide which form would be best for Hawaii.

Aspirations For Hawaii Elections

The deficiencies of the current process were apparent Saturday and resulted in an environment that’s simply not acceptable as a way of picking a candidate vying to become leader of the free world. Among the problems:

  • Paper voter rolls, and in many polling places, no Internet access to allow party volunteers to check prospective voters against the party database.
  • Arbitrary closing times that varied from location to location. In many cases, voters showed up mid-afternoon, with reasonable expectations that voting would still be underway, only to be told they couldn’t vote.
  • In some locations, party officials were so eager to move on to the second matter of the day, elections for party officers and convention delegates, that voters got shortchanged in the process. At Jefferson Elementary in Waikiki, for instance, party volunteers began counting ballots as some voters were still arriving to vote, defying efforts by others to get them to stop, according to one voter at the location.
  • Asking basic questions at polling locations sometimes resulted in different or contradictory answers, depending upon whom you asked. At Koko Head Elementary in Hawaii Kai, voters who had already checked in and received ballots were told by some volunteers they had to stand in line to cast their vote. No, said another volunteer, “Just go give them to that guy on the stage wearing glasses and holding the big white envelope.”
  • Unlike formal elections, campaign promotional items were on full display inside voting areas — plenty of “Feel the Bern” T-shirts, Clinton placards, lapel buttons and more. Sometimes even volunteers who were helping to manage the voting location were dressed in candidate gear, holding signs or wearing pins. Politicization of the voting place is strictly forbidden in primaries, and there’s something to be said for keeping that decision-making area free of candidate influence and interference by supporters.

Democracy is often messy, and in this case, it was made more so by the flood of new voters — at least 18,000, by party estimates — and confusion over the differences between the preferential poll and state-run processes that feature official voting hours, private voting booths and volunteers well trained by government elections offices.

The Hawaii coordinator of the Bernie Sanders campaign, former Democratic Party official Bart Dame, told Civil Beat that confusion was due to “under-educated voters” who “have been spoiled by the efficiency of the Office of Elections and come expecting something similar to a government-run election.”

Hawaii Democratic Caucus voters drop their ballots in a shoebox at Stevenson Middle School in Makiki.
Hawaii Democratic Caucus voters drop their ballots in a shoebox at Stevenson Middle School in Makiki. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Perhaps. But efficiency, consistency from one polling place to the next, and an overall process that builds credibility in the results are fine aspirations for our elections.

It’s hard to see how party-run voting will succeed at any of them, in part because the parties lack the technology and other equipment that characterize modern U.S. voting.

Civil Beat photos from Saturday show voters dropping ballots that look more appropriate for middle school student government elections. At one location, ballots went into a shoebox; at another, into a cardboard box, bound with silver duct tape, that once held nine 24-ounce bottles of Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup.

Moving to a formal primary system would require passage of authorizing legislation by the state Legislature and a sign-off from the governor and appropriation of necessary monies to fund the elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Such decisions are often made in consultation with major party leaders.

Seventeen states economize by holding their other primary elections on the same date as the presidential primary. While making that change might introduce too many complications for Hawaii’s purposes, likely requiring the presidential selection and other primary races to be rescheduled, working toward that could be established as a goal for the future. In the meantime, funds expended on state-run presidential primaries would be money well spent.

Ballot boxes came in various forms throughout Oahu during Saturday's Democratic caucus in Hawaii.
Ballot boxes came in various forms throughout Oahu during Saturday’s Democratic caucus in Hawaii. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Lest anyone feel Hawaii is lagging the field on elections modernity and satisfaction, rest assured we’re not the only state where electoral upgrades are on the table.

“This year, we’ve heard from several states where caucuses are used that they’d like to move toward a primary,” said NCSL Elections Program Director Wendy Underhill. “Whether they go all the way in making that change remains to be seen.”

Regardless, it’s time for Hawaii to join those other states on that journey, and start looking at improving this very important process.

Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, a member of another party or an independent, that’s an outcome we can all agree on.

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