The National Rifle Association is looking for candidates who would try to repeal a state law requiring gun owners to be put into a federal database.

Planned Parenthood is asking candidates if they would oppose abstinence-only education in schools.

The Democratic Party of Hawaii wants to know from candidates whether same-sex couples should have equal access to fertility options.

Special interest groups, labor unions and the media are bombarding federal, state and local candidates this election — some say more than in years past — with questionnaires that try to pin down where they stand on dozens of issues.

Special interest groups and others are bombarding candidates with questionnaires.
Special interest groups and others are bombarding candidates with questionnaires. Courtesy: Pixibay

The information might indicate who would champion a particular cause, who might be swayed and who could stand in the way. It also helps determine who to endorse or contribute to, and who to actively oppose, according to interviews with public officials, candidates, advocacy group leaders and others.

“The words matter,” state Rep. Karl Rhoads said. “And it’s important whether you follow through on it or not,” he added, referring to candidates actually doing what they promise in their responses.

“If you filled out every one of them completely and as thoroughly as the magnitude of the issues demands, that’s probably all you’d do. It’d be an incredible amount of time.” — State Rep. Karl Rhoads

First-time candidates without established voting records get hit up especially hard. Some said they received dozens of surveys this summer, more than they have time to fill out.

The candidates are often left with difficult decisions. Many agree that the sought-after information is useful — both to the public and to the group seeking it, and even to themselves in terms of learning about new issues.

But they said they must prioritize what questionnaires to complete while balancing other aspects of their campaigns, family life and day jobs. In some cases, they risk alienation and disparagement for not filling out a form from a particular group. In other instances, the information they do provide can be used against them.

“If you filled out every one of them completely and as thoroughly as the magnitude of the issues demands, that’s probably all you’d do,” Rhoads said. “It’d be an incredible amount of time.”

Right, Rep Sylvia Luke and Rep Karl Rhoads look for a seats as Chair Rosalyn Baker left and Chair Della Au Belatti during meeting about health etc. 016 Capitol. 25 april 2016.
Rep. Karl Rhoads, seen here at a legislative meeting in April, says candidates can’t realistically expect to answer all the questionnaires they receive. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rhoads, a Honolulu Democrat who has served 10 years in the House and is seeking a Senate seat this fall, said he’s whittled his stack of almost 20 questionnaires down by not completing those from groups who know where he stands and that he has no interest in getting support from, such as pro-gun or pro-tobacco groups.

But like other lawmakers, he said there are some surveys from groups he likes but just doesn’t have time to fill out.

State Sen. Kai Kahele, a Democrat running for office for the first time after being appointed to the Big Island seat in January, said he received a survey just this week from the National Association of Social Workers Hawaii Chapter. He said the group, which he’s never heard of, wants a response in just a few days.

“You want to provide meaningful answers to tough questions because voters are trying to decide who to vote for and to give people a little insight into your mind and what you’re thinking,” he said. “But it’s a lot.”

Representative Kaniela Ing in tropical fish testimony. 4000 testifiers. 11 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum
Rep. Kaniela Ing says he prefers surveys that actually nail down candidates’ positions on key issues. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Successful campaigning means managing time in a way that maximizes contact with voters, Rhoads said. Knocking on doors is more effective than filling out every candidate survey or even spending hours each day sign-waving along the road, as many candidates do, he said.

“It’s a good idea, in an ideal world, that everyone would know where you stand on things,” he said. “But then the time factor starts to kick in.”

Candidates said they’re more likely to respond to questionnaires from media outlets, such as Civil Beat, because their responses will be shared more widely. Still, of 85 candidates running for office in Hawaii this November, only about half have responded to Civil Beat’s questionnaires.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

Candidates said they factor in whether responding to surveys might lead to an endorsement or campaign contribution — often prioritizing those ahead of others with less reach or influence.

State Rep. Kaniela Ing, a Maui Democrat seeking his third term in the House, said the surveys are a “frustrating” aspect of the job because “there’s just too many.”

Ing fended off Deidre Tegarden in the August primary despite her support from interest groups who donated thousands of dollars to her campaign.

He said he doesn’t mind filling out the questionnaires that nail candidates down on particular issues, such as where they stand on building the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea or securing water rights for farmers. But he said some surveys “give so much wiggle room that you can write whatever.”

“I don’t mind the pressure,” Ing said. “That’s what this job should be about — being accountable.”

Looking For Champions

Some nonprofits, like the Hawaii Bicycling League, are limited in how they can use the information they seek in candidate questionnaires and in how they have to ask for it.

Daniel Alexander, the league’s advocacy, planning and communications director, said the group’s non-profit status requires it to send the surveys out to all the candidates instead of cherrypicking the ones they might have a particular interest in, which is what some other organizations do.

The Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, for instance, only sent its questionnaires to candidates in contested races in the Nov. 8 general election.

Left, car attempts to pass in a turn to avoid cyclists riding down Haleakala, Maui. 9 july 2016
The Hawaii Bicycling League wants to know where candidates stand on “safe passing” laws. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Association President and CEO Mufi Hannemann said the surveys serve as the basis of evaluation for endorsements.

“Our hope is to find out where the candidates stand on issues that are important to the industry and to support those office-seekers who will champion legislation that will both protect and enhance Hawaii’s No. 1 industry,” he said.

The Hawaii Bicycling League can’t make endorsements due to its non-profit status, Alexander said, which likely deters some candidates from responding to its survey.

He said candidates complained about being hit with 20-some questions in the organization’s 2014 questionnaire, so this year it was cut to eight.

Alexander said it’s also challenging and time-consuming for the interest groups to write and distribute the questionnaires, but that it’s worth it.

Mufi Hannemann at the Civil Beat Editorial Board
Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association President Mufi Hannemann says his group surveys candidates about their support of the state’s No. 1 industry — tourism. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The league sent each candidate three emails about the survey and followed up with a phone call. He said that was no easy task, in part because the state Elections Office does not provide candidates’ emails, so they have to be tracked down individually.

The league, which worked with outer-island bicycling groups on the state-level questions, asked candidates if they would support using more federal money on walking and bicycling projects and if they would approve a “safe passing” law, which requires motorists to give 3-4 feet of space around bicyclists when they go around them.

Alexander said the survey’s purpose is twofold. It allows the group to identify issues that it thinks are important while educating the candidates and it also serves as a basis for advocacy later, helping to identify elected officials to reach out to for support.

The nonprofit posts the responses on its website, something many other groups do not do.

Chance To Learn — And Educate

Democratic Party of Hawaii officials sent out multiple questionnaires, including those from its Hawaiian Affairs, LGBT and Environment caucuses.

The party’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Caucus, chaired by Michael Golojuch, had several questions.

The caucus wanted to know if candidates would support religious exemption amendments to the public accommodations law with regards to marriage equality and how they would address bullying and discrimination of LGBT students.

Speaker Michael Golojuch Jr. at GLBT rally held at the Capitol. 27 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Michael Golojuch, who chairs the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s LGBT Caucus, says the candidate surveys help the group know how well they understand particular issues and if some education is needed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Golojuch said the candidates’ responses are not made public anymore because of the way political opponents have twisted the answers in the past and used them in attacks.

The LGBT Caucus sends its surveys out to Democratic candidates in partisan races, like Congress and the Legislature, and to those who have declared themselves as Democrats in nonpartisan races, such as mayor.

“It helps us gauge the candidates’ understanding and helps us know where we need to do some education,” Golojuch said.

He said the caucus, like other groups, including the state’s many labor unions and media outlets, may at times need to go beyond the surveys and bring candidates in for an interview. He said that is particularly necessary for individuals with an “iffy history” on LGBT issues.

The NRA: Reply — Or Else

The NRA Political Victory Fund’s request for candidates to fill out its questionnaire was unique among those received by Hawaii candidates in the pressure it tried to apply.

“If you choose not to return a questionnaire, you may be assigned a ‘?’ rating, which can be interpreted by our membership as indifference or disdain, toward Second Amendment-related issues,” Dan Reid, Hawaii state liaison, wrote in his July 1 letter to candidates asking them to fill out a 23-question survey. 

The NRA asserts this is just a matter of full disclosure, not a threat.

Hawaii Rifle Association Shooting Sports Fair bullets. 19 june 2016
The National Rifle Association asks candidates if they would support repealing three Hawaii gun laws. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The group asked the candidates if they would support repealing three Hawaii gun laws and whether they would back legislation that mandates the issuance of concealed-carry permits for law-abiding citizens who clear a background check and are properly trained.

The NRA doesn’t post the candidates’ responses online, but it does give them grades — many Hawaii lawmakers flunked — that are based on the questionnaire, voting record and public statements. It also make endorsements.

In the state House, the NRA endorsed eight Democratic incumbents — Reps. James Tokioka, Isaac Choy, Sam Kong, Ryan Yamane, Henry Aquino, Ty Cullen, Sharon Har and Ken Ito.

The group endorsed seven Republican candidates for House, including Kathryn Henski, Bryan Jeremiah, Marcus Paaluhi and incumbent Reps. Gene Ward, Beth Fukumoto Chang, Bob McDermott and Andria Tupola.

In the state Senate, its only endorsement went to Sam Slom, the chamber’s only Republican.

The NRA has not endorsed any congressional candidates in Hawaii races this year.

Senator Sam Slom meets, greets and answers many questions about the Capitol and his duties as a legislator hosting third graders from Mokulele Elementary School. Slom is the lone republican in the senate. 2 oct 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sen. Sam Slom, the chamber’s only Republican, opposed a bill that passed this year that the NRA now wants to repeal. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The NRA is particularly interested in overturning a law that Gov. David Ige signed in June that requires gun owners to register in the FBI’s “Rap Back” system, known officially as Next Generation Identification.

The system is used to track criminals who are under investigation, but the NRA says Hawaii’s law puts law-abiding citizens’ information into the system as well, and lets the government similarly track their actions. 

“As you can imagine, the NRA finds this one of the most extreme bills we’ve ever seen,” Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association’s institute for legislative action, told Reuters in June.

A conservative-leaning faction of Democrats and the House’s seven Republicans nearly killed the bill when it went through the 51-member chamber earlier this year. Only Slom voted against it in the Senate.

The system works by notifying government agencies when a firearm owner is arrested for a criminal offense anywhere in the country. This allows county police departments in Hawaii to determine if the firearm owner should still be allowed to own firearms, according to the governor’s office.

Read a sampling of some of this year’s candidate questionnaires below.

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