Registered voters in Hawaii are ready to do what the Legislature has refused to do, according to a new Civil Beat poll:

• Sixty-eight percent of respondents support term limits for legislators, while just 16 percent oppose them.

• Sixty percent back allowing voters to basically go over the heads of legislators by establishing a system of statewide voter initiatives, binding referendums and the ability to recall elected officials. Eighteen percent oppose that.

• Forty-six percent support converting to all-mail balloting, while 35 percent are against the change.

Fashionable heals bedecked voter as she casts her ballot at Kahaluu Elementary School. 8 nov 2016 9:54am.
A voter at Kahaluu Elementary School during last year’s general election. A new Civil Beat Poll finds voters strongly favor asserting greater citizen control over state government. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Civil Beat is taking the pulse of voter sentiment on high-profile proposals that invariably die at the Legislature.

Coming later this week are survey results gauging voter interest in three others: medical aid in dying, a lottery and recreational marijuana.

If the Hawaii Legislature again declines to take those issues up beginning in January, they could be part of a future constitutional convention.

Civil Beat reported Monday that 67 percent of registered voters want to hold a constitutional convention, the first in 40 years. A con con question is on the ballot next November.

A Time Limit For Legislators

Referendums, term limits and all-mail voting are all components of citizens exercising greater control over their elected officials.

Matt Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which conducted The Civil Beat Poll Nov. 27-29, said the latest survey results make sense in the context of the con con question.

“These are things that sound good and reflect what we have been seeing,” Fitch said. “What the polls are showing is residents like the opportunity to assert more control over their government.”

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

In Hawaii, county officials — mayors, council members and prosecutors — are limited to a certain number of terms. So are governors and lieutenant governors.

But state senators and representatives have no term limits, even though bills calling for exactly that were introduced as recently as this year.

A House bill would have capped a House tenure at 20 consecutive years, while two Senate measures proposed 12 consecutive years in both chambers. No hearings were held for any of the bills, though they technically carry over to the 2018 session.

The main argument for having term limits is to bring in new leadership, while the main argument against them is the value of experience.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says 15 states currently have legislative term limits, including California, Arizona and Colorado.

Big Island resident Doug Macdonald would like to see Hawaii join their ranks.

“I firmly believe that the state Legislature is too top-heavy,” said Macdonald of Pahoa, one of the poll respondents. “We know that the Democratic Party controls Hawaii. Even though I am a lifelong Democratic voter, I believe in oversight of government, There are too many long-serving politicians in safe districts unthreatened by re-election.”

Macdonald, a former carpenter and homebuilder who is now a semi-retired designer, said Hawaii County has done well by having term limits.

“It brings fresh people with fresh ideas,” he said.

By Popular Demand

Macdonald also supports statewide initiatives and referendums, and he again points to Hawaii County.

“Here on the Big Island, we have an open spaces fund, which was an initiative,” he said. “Two percent of the county budget goes to preserve open spaces for the benefit of community use.”

Twenty-four states have an initiative process that “enables citizens to bypass their state legislature by placing proposed statutes and, in some states, constitutional amendments on the ballot,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There are two types of initiatives: direct, where proposals go straight to the ballot, and indirect, where they are submitted to a legislature.

States including California, Colorado, Oregon and Arizona also have a popular referendum process, where voters may petition to “demand a popular vote” on a new law passed by a legislature.

Recall allows citizens to remove and replace a public official before a term ends.

“In most of the 19 recall states, specific grounds are not required, and the recall of a state official is held by an election,” according to the NCSL.

Another poll respondent, Kelina Anderson of Kailua, supports having statewide referendums and initiatives.

“I love that idea,” she said. “More voices will be heard. Because people are super-busy, we can’t go down to the Legislature.”

Senator Russell Ruderman during ways and means meeting. 3 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
State Sen. Russell Ruderman has pushed voter initiative and term limits bills that his colleagues have chosen not to consider. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the 2017 legislative session, a Senate measure calling for direct initiative never received a hearing. Nor did one House bill proposing an initiative process and another calling for direct initiative, popular referendum and recall.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Democrat representing Puna and Kau, was the author of the Senate direct initiative and term limits bills. He called the poll results heartening.

“I think people are extra-frustrated with our state Legislature after all the things we failed at last year,” Ruderman said. “One example is death with dignity, which has overwhelming support and is arguably the biggest issue we are facing. But it dies without an explanation.”

A measure legalizing medical aid in dying easily passed the Senate but was held in the House Health Committee without a vote, in part because some representatives complained about insufficient safeguards.

Other popular issues ignored by lawmakers, said Ruderman, included a $15 minimum wage and legalizing cannabis.

Fourth Time’s A Charm?

Three states — Washington, Oregon and Colorado — have all-mail voting.

A bill that would have established it in Hawaii by 2020 died in the final days of the 2017 session. It was the third year in a row that a vote-by-mail measure failed to make it out of conference committee.

It remains alive for next session, and some legislative leaders have indicated that it might finally clear both chambers.

Pollster Fitch said one reason why the mail-in voting question did not poll as well as other questions is because it is already happening on a lesser scale.

As the authors of House Bill 1401 noted, the 2014 Hawaii primary election was the first election in which more ballots were submitted before Election Day. Fifty-six percent of voters chose to vote early, and 83 percent of them did so through a mail-in absentee ballot.

Two years later, the number of votes cast early exceeded the number of votes cast at polling places on Election Day in three of the four counties.

As a working mom, time is precious to Anderson of Kailua. That’s a big reason why she supports all-mail voting in Hawaii.

“I just feel it’s more efficient and effective for people who work full-time jobs,” said Anderson, who is a marketer for an Oahu nonprofit. “I remember waiting in line for more than an hour at a Kailua elementary school to vote.”

Macdonald of Pahoa thinks more and more people will favor absentee or mail-in voting, for several reasons. One is that it does not require voter identification. Another is that it’s much easier for disabled people.

Macdonald also raises a point that is very much in the news nationally: voter suppression.

“I still like going to the polls and seeing other people,” he said. “But I also know for a fact that the Republican plan is to suppress turnout just about wherever they go. There is no real voter fraud, just a very small percentage. But the GOP is using voter suppression nationally and in various states to try and target minorities and the poor.”

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 — Term Limits:

The Civil Beat Poll Dec. 2017 — All-Mail Voting:

The Civil Beat Poll Dec. 2017 — Initiative, Referendum and Recall:

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