State Sen. Les Ihara, a Democratic state senator, was a delegate to the 1978 Constitutional Convention.

The ’78 Con Con, as it’s called, is perhaps best known for establishing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

But it also set term limits for governor and lieutenant governor, required an annual balanced budget, recognized Hawaiian as an official state language, formally adopted the state motto, incorporated a right to privacy in the state bill of rights, included the waters surrounding the Hawaii islands as part of the state’s boundaries and established the Judicial Selection Commission, Council on Revenues and Tax Review Commission.

According to a new Civil Beat poll, two-thirds of Hawaii voters (67 percent) surveyed think it’s time for a new constitutional convention. Only 14 percent of those surveyed opposed having a con con.

Overview of the rotunda on opening day of the legislature. 21 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Opening day of the 2015 Hawaii Legislature. A constitutional convention would allow citizens to change state laws on their own. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The poll surveyed 843 registered voters statewide, 70 percent on landlines and 30 percent with cellphones. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percent.

“People like the idea that they are able to assert their own opinion into state law,” said Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which conducted The Civil Beat Poll. “It is a more direct opportunity rather than having their elected representatives vote for them.”

This week, Civil Beat is publishing the results of our poll not only on a constitutional convention but major issues that regularly fail to pass the Legislature: all-mail voting, statewide referendum, term limits for elected officials, a lottery, legalization of recreational marijuana and medical aid-in-dying bills.

The goal is to gauge voter interest as House and Senate members are gearing up for the 2018 legislative session in January, but also in advance of the Nov. 6 general election vote for a constitutional convention. 

Told that a new Civil Beat Poll shows strong support for Hawaii holding a new con con, Ihara said he wasn’t the least bit surprised.

 “I think there is a general sentiment throughout the nation including in Hawaii — a popular sentiment,” he said. “People are wanting to get back control for their own communities.”

“I think it behooves our civic leaders to help educate the public about the importance of a con con,” he added.

On Nov. 6, Hawaii voters will have the chance to call for a con con, which would allow citizens to amend the state Constitution without going through the Legislature.

Many Hawaii voters are likely not aware of the constitutional convention question, which goes on the ballot every 10 years. But holding a con con can be consequential.

The 1978 Con Con’s delegates also produced future leaders, including a former governor (John Waihee III), a Honolulu mayor (Jeremy Harris), OHA trustee Frenchy DeSoto and state legislators such as Joe Souki, Carol Fukunaga, Barbara Marumoto — and Les Ihara.

Will Apathetic Voters Care?

Warner “Kimo” Sutton, a Republican who was also a delegate to the ’78 Con Con, said he was surprised about support for a new con con because Hawaii’s voter turnout rates are abysmally low.

Why, he indicated, would a state that doesn’t vote decide to vote for a con con?

Sutton, whose father, Ike Sutton, participated in the 1968 Con Con, also warned that special interests might make it difficult for major changes to be made to the state Constitution.

Trump supporter Warner “Kimo” Sutton is surprised so many people support a Constitutional Convention, given Hawaii’s low voting turnout. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“I believe that you will have huge union opposition to a con con, and that they will put big money into TV advertising on this by the time people vote,” he said. “That’s because they worry that collective bargaining will be changed.”

Collective bargaining, which came out of ’68 Con Con, ensures that public employment unions have the right to organize to negotiate with the government over salary, benefits and other issues.

Sutton, who helped spearhead the local campaign for Donald Trump in 2016, also warned that it was unlikely that the Democrat-controlled Legislature would favor a con con.

“They like to have the power,” he said.

Senator Les Ihara during Editorial board meeting.
State Senator Les Ihara was a delegate to the 1978 Constitutional Convention that produced many lasting government reforms. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But Kristina Adams, who participated in The Civil Beat Poll, wants to give power back to the people.

At the federal level, she said she is worried about the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress “that just seems to take everything Trump says and obey his commands. I think the government needs to be restructured a lot.”

She added, “I have a new baby greatgrandson, 6 months old. I may not be here much longer, but he has to live with all this turmoil and lack of voice for the people.”

Adams wants to see changes in government at the state level, too.

“I come from California, which is pretty progressive and has pretty good schools,” said Adams, who moved near Honokaa on the Big Island four years ago. “But the Spanish teacher in our school last year went away and never came back, and our chemistry teacher, too. We don’t seem to be able to come up with solutions to keep teachers.”

Adams feels there may be a lack of government interest in the state Board of Education. That’s why she’s in favor of Hawaii holding a constitutional convention — to give people a greater voice. 

Public Interests Vs. Special Interests

Adams did not have a specific proposal regarding education in a 2018 con con.

But as Anne Feder Lee, whose 1993 reference guide “The Hawaii State Constitution” explains in its section on the 1978 Con Con, the convention was wide-ranging in its agenda proposals.

Lee cited sources that argued public interest groups supported a convention because it was “a healthy and democratic device to review basic government organization and procedures.”

But Lee also noted that special interest groups supported a con con in order to have “yet another opportunity to write their platforms into the Constitution.”

Voters rejected con cons in two votes subsequent to the 1978 Con Con. Writing in advance of the 2000 vote, however, Lee used language that seems pertinent to today when it comes to the relevance of the state Constitution.

She wrote that Hawaii would have the opportunity to “constitute a decision on whether the current document satisfies the demands arising out of the transition from the twentieth to the twenty-first century.”

Editor’s note: For tabulation purposes, percentage points are rounded off to the nearest whole number. As a result, percentages in a given table or chart may total slightly higher or lower than 100 percent.

The Civil Beat Poll Dec. 2017 — Constitutional Convention:

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