Hawaii has arguably the least competitive state legislative elections among the 50 U.S. states. At its Aug. 11 primary, 96.2 percent of elected state legislators seeking re-election won. No incumbent is expected to lose in the Nov. 6 general election.

Another measure of competitiveness is the number of seats in a legislature held by a single party. In Hawaii, it’s 93.4 percent, the highest percentage in the United States. In the state Senate, one party holds 100 percent of the seats.

When the monetary advantage of winning candidates is factored in, Hawaii also comes out at the bottom. According to the National Institute on Money in Politics, 100 percent of Hawaii candidates with both an incumbency and monetary advantage won in the last general election — the worst among the 50 states.

Lawmakers scramble before 6pm deadline at the legislature. 29 april 2016
Lawmakers at work late in the 2016 legislative sessions. It is rare for incumbents to lose office, as Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, at right, did in the 2018 primary. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the 2018 primary, all three challengers who beat incumbents were backed by the Hawaii State Teachers Association, one of Hawaii’s most powerful trade associations. One was HSTA’s secretary-treasurer, one of HSTA’s top four positions; another had been deputy director of Hawaii’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Term limits for state legislators would reduce the excessive level of legislative entrenchment. To be sure, term limits are a second-best solution to this problem. In an ideal world, tackling the many contributing factors to incumbent entrenchment, including legislative redistricting, ethics, transparency, campaign finance, voting rules and ballot access, would be a better solution.

But the public rightfully trusts the term limits solution because, although imperfect, they know this solution cannot be rigged to favor incumbents.

In Hawaii, as in other states, legislative terms limits are highly popular. A Civil Beat poll found 68 percent support among all respondents and 81 percent support among respondents expressing support or opposition.

No Initiative In Hawaii

A state constitutional amendment is necessary to enact term limits. But the state Legislature will never place such an amendment on the ballot because it’s not in its institutional self-interest to do so. In contrast, it has acceded to popular opinion on term limits for the governor, lieutenant governor, county mayors and county councilors in part because such term limits don’t directly limit its own power.

Other states have circumvented state legislature opposition via the constitutional initiative. Although Hawaii lacks that legislative bypass mechanism, it does have the alternative: the periodic state constitutional convention referendum. That’s why a convention is Hawaii’s only hope to pass legislative term limits.

What is costly to special interests may be beneficial to the people of Hawaii.

Throughout most of American history, the average term of a state legislator was relatively short. In a world where legislators were predominantly citizen-legislators rather than career-legislators, legislators couldn’t expect to earn a living, let alone make a career, out of serving in office, and voluntary legislator turnover was high, term limits weren’t needed.

Despite having an arsenal of arguments to oppose term limits, groups opposing term limits will mostly avoid directly attacking such a popular democratic reform. Instead, they will attack the state constitutional convention as a needless, costly, and risky democratic reform mechanism. But what is costly to special interests may be beneficial to the people of Hawaii. Special interests’ organizing and financing the convention opposition in the shadows may be the best reason for the people to support a convention.

Hawaii’s framers gave the people the gift of the periodic state constitutional convention referendum so the people could bypass the Legislature on democratic reform problems like legislative term limits. We should accept their gift gratefully.

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