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Monday, September 13, 2010
Hawaii Democratic Convention renews call for closed primary
By Andrew Walden @ 8:01 PM :: 11063 Views :: Democratic Party, Office of Elections

by Andrew Walden (originally posted June 11, 2010)

Hawaii Democratic convention delegates meeting at the Hilton Hawaiian Village May 29 approved a resolution calling for closed Democratic primaries (see full text below).

Hawaii State law now mandates that political parties’ primaries be open to any voter who wishes to participate.  But many Progressive Democrats feel that their ideological soul mates are having a tough time winning Democratic Primary races due to voting by non-Democrats.

Any move away from Hawaii’s current open primary system would require party line registration, causing tens of thousands of new voters to become enrolled members of both Democratic and Republican parties. 

US Supreme Court decisions in separate cases brought by California Democrats and Connecticut Republicans have twice upheld the principle of free association—that the Party, not the State, determines which voters can and cannot participate in the Party primary.  This leads many Progressive Democrats to believe that a lawsuit challenging the current Hawaii law mandating open primaries would be successful.

Opposing them are the old boys whose support within the Democratic organization is flagging.  To stifle implementation of a similar 2006 resolution, Sen Dan Inouye pounded the table and the State AFL-CIO threatened to cut off funds to the Hawaii Democratic Party.  Here’s how it was described in the Honolulu Advertiser Dec 12, 2007:  

"The party is tired of having unknown people nominating its candidates by a secret, shadowy process," said Tony Gill, a labor attorney who is prepared to file suit against the state on the party's behalf. "Here's another way of putting it: You don't let another team pick your quarterback."

Neal Milner, a University of Hawai'i-Manoa ombudsman and political analyst, said a closed primary would lower voter turnout but would likely lead to nominees who are closer ideologically to the party's platform.

"The question I would have is why would they want to do this, because it would certainly reduce turnout," he said. "I think it's about getting the candidates some of them want."

The Democratic Party of Hawai'i agreed to a resolution at its state convention last year supporting closed primaries to deter crossover voting. Activists have been pressuring the party's leadership for months to file a lawsuit against the state's chief elections officer challenging the state's open primary system as unconstitutional.

Many of the party's elected leaders, including U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, fear a lawsuit could be a tactical mistake and a public-relations embarrassment. The Hawai'i State AFL-CIO, one of the party's most important political allies, has threatened to withhold financial support from the party if a suit is filed.

The rift is between some of the party's liberal activists, who believe too many of the party's elected leaders have drifted from the party's platform, and pragmatists who want the party to appeal to an increasingly independent electorate….

… crossover voting does occur. Case openly urged all voters to vote in his primary with Akaka last year and was able to attract many independents and Republicans. Case took 45 percent of the vote despite the fact that party leaders, both in Hawai'i and Washington, D.C., were uniformly behind Akaka.

The Case campaign, which infuriated many traditional Democrats, was not the motivation behind the call for a lawsuit but it has been cited by several Democrats as evidence of how the primary system can be influenced by crossover voting.

"The current primary law in Hawai'i is unconstitutional," said Richard Port, a former party chairman….

A vote to rescind party authorization for the lawsuit narrowly failed amid procedural confusion at a state central committee meeting last month in Kona. Another vote is possible at a state central committee meeting in January on Oahu….

Mike McCartney, who stepped down as Democratic Party chairman this year to become executive director of the Hawai'i State Teachers Association, refused to file a lawsuit challenging the state's open primary system because he said voters should decide whether to change the process. Voters will be asked next year whether to hold a constitutional convention in 2010.

McCartney also said a lawsuit would not be worth the party's money or energy. "I think there are more important issues the public wants us as a party to solve," he said.

State House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa), said fighting for a closed primary sends the wrong message….

Hawaii Democrats’ State Central Committee met again on January 16, 2008 and killed efforts to move forward with the lawsuit.  Here is what the Advertiser reported from that meeting:

John Buckstead, the party's Big Island chairman, said the party should be able to know who is voting for its nominees. He said an argument used in 1978 that open primaries would increase voter turnout has not proved true. Primary voter turnout in Hawai'i has fallen from 74.6 percent in 1978 to 42.2 percent in 2006.

Buckstead and other activists who favored the lawsuit also believe that more of the party's candidates would follow the party's platform if primaries were closed. "That would tend to hold them more accountable after they get elected," he said.

Richard Port, a former Democratic Party chairman and one of those who pushed hardest for a lawsuit, said the vote last night essentially means the party is ignoring the will of convention delegates.

"The basic problem is there is going to be less and less difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party," Port said of the keeping the primaries open. "So what we're getting, essentially, is a mishmash of Republicans joining the Democratic Party to dilute the values of our party."

Democrats on the state central committee, many who had come for opening day of the state Legislature, met privately for more than three hours at the YWCA across from the state Capitol. The debate, according to people who were inside, at times turned testy.

Some activists who wanted the lawsuit — according to several accounts — at first used procedural motions to delay and then threatened to walk out to prevent a quorum necessary for a vote….

State House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo Valley, Wilhelmina Rise), said the internal debate over the lawsuit has made the party look as if it wanted to exclude voters.

Many elected Democrats have fought to keep the majority party relevant as demographic and cultural shifts have led many voters to describe themselves as independents.

"I think we should give the public the opportunity to vote for who they want to in the primary," Say said.

Jeani Withington, the party's interim chair, also opposed filing the lawsuit. A motion to rescind the lawsuit had failed at a state central committee meeting in Kona in November. But Withington declined to authorize the suit and stalled activists after it soon became clear there would be enough votes by yesterday's meeting. The vote was 36-5.

Will Progressive Democrats overcome the entrenched resistance of their old-boy overlords?  Or will this renewed effort again die an ignominious death at the hands of the State Central Committee?

Stay tuned.



GOV 2010-02 Limitation of Voting in Democratic Party Primaries to Party Members

Whereas, Since 1978, primary elections in Hawai‘i have been open to participation by any voter; and

Whereas, It has become increasingly apparent in recent years across the United States that persons who are not Democrats have been voting in Democratic Party primaries for the purpose of selecting the weakest Democratic candidate, and for other inappropriate purposes including, most notably as urged by Rush Limbaugh, no friend of the Democratic Party, in his "Operation Chaos", to interfere with Democratic Party primary voting in 2008; and

Whereas, Voting in Democratic Party primaries by persons who are not Democrats increasingly threatens the integrity of the Democratic Party's processes for the selection of candidates for public office; and

Whereas, The United States Supreme Court held in California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567 (2000), that a political party has the right, pursuant to its constitutionally protected rights of freedom of association, to limit voting in its primaries to party members, and that state governments must comply with the wishes of a political party to impose such limitations on voting, without the necessity of statutory changes, the Court noting that "A single election in which the party nominee is selected by nonparty members could be enough to destroy the party"; and

Whereas, Under California Democratic Party, primaries will be closed only if a political party asks that they be closed; and

Whereas, It is in the best interest of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i to limit participation in the primaries to persons who state that they subscribe to the principles of the party; and

Whereas, It is already a provision of the General Laws of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i to support such a change; now, therefore

Be It Resolved, That the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i take all action necessary and proper to limit participation in all Democratic Party primaries within the State of Hawai‘i to persons who are bona fide members of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, and to cause the Hawai‘i State Government to institute such limitations in all future primaries as soon as possible; and

Be It Further Resolved, That copies of this resolution be transmitted to the Governor of the State of Hawai‘i, all members of the Hawai‘i State Legislature, and the Hawai‘i State Office of Elections.




Hawaii Democrats debate closed primary (backgrounder) (includes links to court decisions)

Hawaii Republicans challenge state's open primary system

Isle GOP proposes election changes 

2008 SB: Caucus confusion Isle voters gather to pick Republican party delegates

PDH: closed primaries

Hawaii Democratic Convention


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