During this divisive time in our nation’s political history we know it rings true that voters are frustrated, and for lots of reasons:

  • government that no longer seems to work for them
  • special interests and their outsized influence on our politics
  • lawmakers who don’t seem to listen to their constituents
  • and, perhaps most frustrating of all, a government that, year after year, seems to make little to no progress on perennial issues overwhelmingly supported by Hawaii’s voting population.

Common Cause Hawaii takes these issues very seriously, and we work tirelessly with other grassroots organizations, members of the community, and legislators to fight these systemic shortcomings and support a transparent, accessible and thriving democracy.

Civil Beat’s July 25 editorial — “Get Ready For Scare Tactics To Ward Off A Constitutional Convention” — framed the idea of a constitutional convention as staunchly black and white; and anyone who isn’t on board with this is potentially against progress as a whole. We believe this to be an unfair dichotomy and we are not alone.

Common Cause’s Corie Tanida at a recent Civil Beat forum at the State Capitol. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

In the last 10 years, voters in states such as New York, Ohio, Maryland and Alaska have voted not to have their own state con cons. While Common Cause does not formally take a position on whether or not Hawaii should hold a con con of its own, we do stand firmly behind the assertion that the public must be educated on the overall process in addition to the equally weighted pros and cons of a convention.

First, the process. Essentially there would be three elections in this multi-year effort to get the ball rolling. The first will be this November, when voters decide whether or not a con con is in their best interest. If approved, the second election would occur after the Legislature determines some of the logistical details and would serve to elect the convention delegates. In the third and final election, voters will ratify or reject the proposed changes.

Since Civil Beat has already outlined some of the advantages of a con con, such as more direct participation by citizens and the opportunity to introduce new ideas, we’ve listed just a few drawbacks below to help local residents better understand the overall complexities of this issue.

Beware The Influence Of Money

It would be naive of us to assume that money will not influence our politics in this ongoing, multi-year time frame. If money in politics affects us now then the ripples can certainly widen when so much more is at stake, and for so long.

In the same editorial it was suggested that the Legislature can address money’s influence on the con con through legislation, but what happens if the Legislature does not enact these laws? Also, while the Legislature can set limits on donations to con con candidates, what about unlimited spending by super PACs and ballot issue committees?

Until we have comprehensive reforms like overturning Citizens United or a full publicly funded elections program, money will continue to impact how our democracy functions.

Within the same vein, we must also acknowledge Hawaii’s low voter turnout. When citizens do not vote, they give up their seat at the table. This makes it much easier for special interests to deploy their financial resources, and their impact is more widely felt. We should not be blase about the connection between purse strings and politics.

We cannot have a comprehensive conversation without further exploring the potential costs of a convention. In its testimony to the Legislature in March, the Legislative Reference Bureau estimated that if a con con were held, following similar guidelines for the 1978 convention (102 delegates), it would cost $55,835,857 excluding ballot counting costs. This is not a small figure and it should not be discounted as citizens weigh in this November.

It is not possible to list all of the pros and cons here, but we do ourselves a disservice if we do not carefully examine both sides of the decision before us and give this issue the thoughtful consideration it deserves. We are in agreement with Civil Beat that Hawaii voters should be asking if “we’re ready to hold a conversation of consequence about how its government works?”

The conversation does not stop there, however. What about:

  • Is the Constitution the appropriate place to address the issue(s) at hand? (Should it be handled via Hawaii Revised Statues or Administrative Rules?)
  • Is there a grassroots wave of concern about our state constitution?
  • Has there been adequate education of the public regarding the potential for change? Are we prepared to do outreach?
  • Is the timing right for citizens and political actors?
  • In terms of a more appropriate order of operations, what steps can we take to increase voter participation in the short-term, such as vote by mail and automatic voter registration? We can reasonably presume that a con con would be much more fruitful and more representative of the people, if our voter participation rate were closer to Minnesota’s 74.5 percent rate than our 50 percent.

Holding a constitutional convention is not a decision to make lightly, and we encourage everyone to seek information, continue the conversation, and most importantly, vote. This is a great time for anyone concerned with good, transparent governance to come together and address these critical questions and more. For a brief overview of the Hawaii State constitutional convention process, please visit this website.

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