What Does Hawaii Have In Common With These Red States? A Fear Of Direct Democracy - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Mainland Republicans are trying to roll back the rights of citizens to pursue statewide ballot initiatives but island Democrats have never allowed it either.

Unhappy that the majority of voters don’t always agree with them, mainland political conservatives are going after a new enemy: direct democracy.

In the process, they’re bringing new attention to the citizens initiative process that allows voters in many states to go over the heads of their elected officials and place issues directly onto the ballot.

Republican legislators in Ohio unsuccessfully tried to short-circuit an upcoming abortion-rights ballot measure by asking voters in a special election last month to raise the threshold for passing such measures from a simple majority to 60%. Similar efforts failed last year in Arkansas and South Dakota, and more may be coming in Florida and Missouri.

In Arizona, the GOP will soon ask voters to make it more difficult to get citizens initiatives on the ballot in the first place through the petition process.

All are red-leaning states with majority parties that want to stay that way by keeping power in the hands of their legislatures.

Which brings us across the ocean to a true-blue state where entrenched stakeholders are even more draconian about consolidating power within the State Capitol chambers. Hawaii, after all, is the only Western state that does not allow statewide voter initiatives in any form.

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Reform-minded legislators frequently try to change that, but their proposals are immediately killed by committee chairs without receiving public hearings.

This year, it was House Bill 1173, which asked legislators to ask voters if they wanted to finally grant themselves the rights of direct democracy to propose their own statewide ballot initiatives, force referendums on bills passed by the Legislature and recall state officials.

“Most legislators are afraid of what the people will do if we give them too much power through this democratic safety valve,” said the measure’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Gene Ward.

Sen Laura Thielen and right, Sen Russell Ruderman during Civil Beat's Editorial Board.
Then-Sens. Laura Thielen, left, and Russell Ruderman, center, discuss a proposal to create a citizens initiative process with the Civil Beat Editorial Board in 2016. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

It’s not just Hawaii’s minority party pushing for statewide citizens initiatives. In 2016, a similar proposal came from Sens. Russell Ruderman, Laura Thielen and Maile Shimabakuro, Democrats all.

And then there’s the voters. In a December 2017 Civil Beat poll, 60% supported statewide citizens initiatives, referendums and recalls, with 18% in opposition.

When they adopted dozens of reform measures last year, members of the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct also considered proposing statewide citizens initiatives. They ultimately chose not to, voicing the same concerns long cited by other opponents of giving this power to the people.

But whether those concerns are viable is open to debate, and some states have already taken steps to address them.

Don’t Be California

Former Judge Dan Foley, who chaired the standards commission, pointed to California as a “poster child” for what’s wrong with the citizens initiative process.

“It’s really a vehicle for special interests and big money to pretty much put anything on the ballot and push for it,” Foley told Civil Beat in January. “It’s been abused in that state.”

The Golden State does have issues with its citizens initiative process.

california election voter guide
A voter information guide for California’s 2016 general election. (Flickr: torbakhopper)

Uber, Lyft and similar businesses spent more than $200 million last year on a referendum to overturn legislation that would have made their independent contractors into employees.

In 2016, there were 17 statewide initiatives. The guide mailed to all voters to explain them was 224 pages long.

But California is just one of 26 states that allow statewide initiatives and/or referendums, and most see a lot less spending on those measures.

Oregon is the only state that has actually had more citizens initiatives on its ballots (446 since 1904) than California (439 since 1912). But Oregon has been more proactive in bringing clarity to its plethora of ballot measures through the establishment in 2011 of a Citizens’ Initiative Review.

A random sampling of impartial citizens fitting Oregon’s profile in terms of race, gender and region is chosen to review a ballot measure. They hear from experts on the impact of the measure and from supporters and opponents before composing a 750-word statement in plain language listing the pros and cons, which appears in a voters’ guide.

In Arizona, voters approved two changes to that state’s initiative process last year. One requires initiatives to embrace a single subject, and the other requires 60% voter approval to pass ballot measures that involve taxes.

‘You Can’t Corrupt’ The Public

The citizens initiative and referendum process is not necessarily a boon to special interests.

One noted national researcher in the field concluded in a 2017 study that “None of the evidence supports the view that the initiative enhances the power of special interests.”

In fact, wrote John Matsusaka of the University of Southern California, “Policies are more likely to be congruent with majority opinion in states with the initiative process than states without the initiative, suggesting that direct democracy allows the majority to counteract the power of special interests in policy making.”

If you look at big businesses, most of them don’t like direct democracy. They’d much rather be able work things out with legislators.”

John Matsusaka

“You might be able buy legislators, you can give them deals or make arrangements with them,” Matsusaka said in an interview about his study. “But you can’t make arrangements with 10 or 20 million voters. The most you can do is pour a lot of money into running commercials and try to persuade them, but you can’t corrupt them. You can try to trick and deceive them, but there are limits to how far that can go. If you look at big businesses, most of them don’t like direct democracy. They’d much rather be able work things out with legislators.”

It’s hard to imagine that well-heeled special interests aren’t content with the status quo in Hawaii.

During the last legislative session, more than 300 organizations spent almost $5.6 million on lobbying — more than during any other session in at least the last five years, according to records filed with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.

The Company They Keep

Proponents of direct democracy have long noted the irony of opposing citizens initiatives because they would allegedly strengthen special interests that are already so empowered.

There was a push to establish statewide initiatives, referendums and recalls during the last constitutional convention in 1978. A key proponent was the good-government organization Common Cause Hawaii.

In a newspaper interview at the time, Common Cause’s Carol Zachary said special interests “can better use the established legislative process than they can the entire electorate. Their defense of the present system proves that they don’t want to give people the franchise. They’re scared of what they might do.” 

Hawaii voters do have the right to citizens initiatives at the county level, and in 2015 Maui County voters proved quite resistant to a special interest.

One of the biggest special interests in the state, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, strongly opposed the proposal for direct democracy at the convention, and the union position prevailed.

Interestingly, Hawaii voters do have the right to citizens initiatives at the county level, and in 2015 Maui County voters proved quite resistant to a special interest. They passed a moratorium on genetically engineered crops even though the biotech industry spent almost $8 million to oppose it.

The moratorium was later invalidated by a judge who ruled in part that such an action would have to be approved statewide, not just in one county. If only …

Across the country, citizens initiatives are becoming increasingly important tools for progressives looking to overcome Republican efforts to thwart the role of the majority on issues such as abortion rights.

Hawaii’s Democratic legislators should consider the company they’re keeping as they continue to deny voters the right to citizens initiatives in the islands.

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

As much as I believe most powerful elected officials do not represent the people, I'm concerned about the "educated" population voting on initiatives put out by those very special interests, the end result possibly being even more disastrous than the legislative process itself. That union voting block and it's companion SI influencer, PRP, may bring about their agenda faster than through the highly influenced legis. However, what is happening now, is not working and there is little faith in government. If anything it's a straight up mistrust that what they do in the capitol makes Hawaii a better place to live, it seems the exact opposite. That being said, I encourage voters to become more educated and independent thinkers in how we want to be governed. If we work towards that goal, then the citizen initiative makes sense. We can no longer rely on the current process to bring about change, it is set up to preserve the status quo and the money and interests that the status quo represents. I think the Lahaina fire will force some of these broken down institutions to face reality, which is the only good that can come from tragedy.

wailani1961 · 3 weeks ago

As a socialist, this is what I'm constantly trying to explain to people who unironically think Hawaii is "far left." Hawaii dems are neoliberals who are beholden to corporations and the military industrial complex. If they actually believed in democracy, they wouldn't be so fearful of things like ballot initiatives and referendums.

libsoc · 3 weeks ago

There are many ways Hawaii could improve on the California and Oregon models: E.g., initiatives put on ballot without going through Legislature first could have a higher vote requirement (because it wasn't vetted in leg process); and stringent disclosure re paid signatue gatherers, etc. And parts of those models seem fine: OR's review panel; CA's comprehensive voter guide. And you could exclude recalls for example (or require a higher threshold). Lots to work with if only Hawaii would try to get it done...

MarkS_OceanDem · 4 weeks ago

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