If people received an invitation to an intriguing event that can happen only once a decade, they’d think twice before throwing it away, right?
The Nov. 6 general election ballot features just such an invitation, and whether voters accept it will say a lot about the public psyche of modern-day Hawaii.
Are we willing to have a free-ranging conversation about ways to make our state government work better, or do we prefer to hunker down and not risk making things worse?
It would be a shame if the latter viewpoint prevails, and not just because pessimism would trump optimism. We’d also be forfeiting a rare chance to make much-needed changes in how the islands are run.
The fact is, we have a lot more to gain than to lose by holding a state constitutional convention.
The only question for now is whether to have this conversation at all.
The framers of Hawaii’s original constitution saw the value of giving the general populace, rather than its elected leaders, an occasional crack at determining how its government operates.
They didn’t make it easy. The opportunity comes once every 10 years. And it requires that a majority of all voters who cast ballots answer “yes” to the question of whether to convene a constitutional convention. Leave that question blank, and you’ve voted “no.”
If this turns out to be the year we decide to authorize another one, it’ll still be awhile before the actual event occurs because the Legislature has to organize a delegate election and many other details need to be worked out. And any proposed constitutional amendments emanating from the convention would still have to be approved by voters.
Here are some things we think you should consider:
• A constitutional convention is the only way Hawaii will ever achieve something many other states already have: a statewide citizens initiative process. If this was the convention’s only accomplishment, it would be a huge success.
Right now our elected leaders have us in a headlock, taking action on issues of obvious public benefit only when it suits them. Think medical marijuana — it was legalized in 2000 but legislators didn’t get around to approving dispensaries until 2015. Think medical aid in dying — lawmakers sat on it for a number of sessions, in some cases without even taking a vote out in the open, before finally deigning to approve it.
We the people need a way to go over the Legislature’s head.
• The initiative process is usually bundled with two other good ideas: a referendum process that allows citizens to force a public vote on new legislation they dislike, and a recall process to get rid of bad leaders.
And the changes don’t have to stop there. Should state lawmakers have to abide by the Sunshine Law regarding open meetings that applies to other legislative bodies and government boards in Hawaii? That would be one way to cut down on all the public business that they currently conduct in private.
Reforms that shake up our election process are also more likely to come from a constitutional convention than from the Legislature. Consider how long lawmakers are taking to simply convert to all-mail elections. Then consider how long it would take them to establish term limits for themselves.
Other election reforms to consider include ranked-choice voting and top-two primaries. The latter, already used in Washington and California, advances the top two primary vote-getters to the general election regardless of party affiliation. Whether either of these is right for Hawaii is open to debate.
We could have that debate at a constitutional convention.
• Past conventions have been successful. In 1968 it established the right to collective bargaining for public employee unions. The convention in 1978 proved to be a breakthrough for Native Hawaiian rights and environmental protections, and a new generation of leaders emerged from it.
Some people are afraid those gains from previous conventions could be reversed if we had another one.
That’s a peculiarly defeatist viewpoint.
• But the ultimate irony threaded through the opposition is the fear that delegates to a constitutional convention will be unduly influenced by special interests.
That, after all, is a fear already realized in our mostly members-for-life Legislature.
The established powers in Hawaii believe they are doing just fine behind closed doors without the public interference that a constitutional convention might generate. And make no mistake, these powers are particularly entrenched in a state dominated by a single political party.
Are they running things well enough? Maybe if you’re looking down from a luxury condo. Maybe not if you’re among the many island residents who can’t easily afford the basic necessities of life.
Some people fear the uncertainty of a constitutional convention. We fear the certainty of the status quo.
That’s why you’re going to be hearing a lot more about these issues from us in the weeks to come.
Good things happen when citizens come together to engage in public discourse. While there will be many disagreements about the issues at hand, there really should be no disagreement about whether to have the conversation.
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