Hawaii’s 2018 election is still bugging some lawmakers, who say they plan to push bills this session that would aim to get a grip on super PACs, open up public financing of campaigns and sidestep political parties by allowing the top two vote-getters in a primary race to move on to the general election, no matter what party they’re from.

House Finance chair Sylvia Luke and incoming Senate Judiciary chair Karl Rhoads previewed some of their top legislative priorities on Thursday to a standing-room-only panel discussion sponsored by Civil Beat at the Capitol.

With less than a week to go before the 2019 session begins, the lunch-hour Civil Cafe drew more than 100 people eager to hear from the influential lawmakers plus League of Women Voters president Janet Mason and Josh Wisch, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii. Civil Beat politics and opinion editor Chad Blair moderated the discussion.

Rep Sylvia Luke during the Civil Cafe.

House Finance chair Sylvia Luke is aiming to reform elections in this legislative session. At right is Josh Wisch of the ACLU, and Sen. Karl Rhoads is on the far left.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Luke said issues relating to elections and campaign finance will be a priority for her this year, especially trying to curb some of the big money that has been surfacing in targeted races.

“The super PACs have gotten out of control, and I am very disappointed in a certain union that has gone over the top,” Luke said.

She acknowledged she was talking about the Carpenters Union and in particular its role in the Honolulu City Council race where incumbent Carol Fukunaga was targeted by the union’s Be Change Now PAC with attack pieces and financial support for one of her opponents. Fukunaga won the seat outright in the Aug. 9 primary.

“Those type of pieces went beyond what was OK because it was just clear out mudslinging,” Luke said. “And I think those things have got to stop.”

Be Change Now spent about $3 million in the 2018 election, much of it to support Josh Green’s successful bid for lieutenant governor and to oppose Gov. David Ige’s re-election. Luke was a vocal supporter of Ige’s opponent, former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa.

Luke didn’t give specifics of what her proposal might include but said she was “trying to do something creative” and would work with Rhoads and other lawmakers once session begins.

Civil Cafe held at the Captiol wide.

The forum drew a packed audience to hear about plans for this year’s legislative session.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Luke also is interested in trying to bolster voter turnout by making Hawaii elections more interesting, as she put it.

Most state elections are decided in the primary because Democrats dominate the races and incumbents are nearly always re-elected. Voter turnout is low here and many people say they lose interest before the November general election because there’s no real reason to go to the polls.

Luke wants to spice things up and make the general election the main event by sending the top two vote-getters from the primary on to the general, no matter what party they’re from. In 2018, for instance, in the governor’s race Ige and Hanabusa collected far more votes than Republican Andria Tupola. In the 1st Congressional District race, the top two vote-getters were Ed Case and Doug Chin, both Democrats, not Republican Cam Cavasso, who went on to the general election and was soundly defeated by Case.

Luke told the Civil Cafe audience that minor parties would need to compete on the same level.

“We shouldn’t give a free pass” to the Green Party, or Libertarians or the American Shopping Party, which she noted is also considered a legitimate political party in Hawaii.

She said she would be proposing a statutory change to allow the two leading candidates to go on to the general.

Rhoads is interested in encouraging public financing of campaigns, an idea that drew broad applause from the audience.

“The argument against it is you don’t want to pay politicians to run for office but that’s exactly 180 degree backwards,” he said. “That’s exactly what you want to do you — you want to pay people to run for office because then they’re beholden to you, the taxpayer.”

Mason, of the League of Women Voters, said her group will be supporting proposals that would implement automatic voter registration and mandatory recounts in close races.

The ACLU’s Wisch said his organization will be focusing on ‘smart justice’ reforms such as reducing or eliminating money bail for many defendants, where less onerous and more effective types of bail could be used to ensure the accused returns to court. He noted that half of the state’s jail population are pre-trial detainees, many of whom sit in jail because they can’t afford even minor money bail costs.

Watch this discussion of election reform at Civil Beat’s forum:

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