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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hawaii Democrats vote to keep open primary

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

State Democrats voted last night to rescind a call for the party to file a lawsuit against the state alleging the state's open primary system is unconstitutional.

The Democratic Party of Hawai'i had been on record since May 2006 in favor of closing the party's primaries to prevent crossover voting by Republicans or independents. But the party's leadership, and many of its top elected officials and labor union allies, opposed a lawsuit and resisted attempts by party activists to force the issue.

Elected Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, argued that a lawsuit was a public-relations mistake that could limit voter participation.

"E komo mai. Everyone is welcome," said Lance Holter, the party's Maui chair, after the party's state central committee voted against the lawsuit. "We want independents to vote. We want to offer them hospitality."

Hawai'i is among 10 states with open primaries. Island voters, since after a state constitutional amendment in 1978, have been able to choose on election day which party's ballot to pull regardless of whether they are party members.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that political parties have a First Amendment right of association that the states should consider in primary systems.

Some party activists believe the state's law is unconstitutional given the court's rulings and want voters to at the very least declare their party preference before they can vote. The party had passed a resolution supporting closed primaries at its 2006 state convention.

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.

Doug Pyle, the co-chair of the party's legislative committee, said he supported a lawsuit but wanted more time to explain the issue to voters. He said many of the activists believe that if the state's open primary system was ruled unconstitutional by the courts, the state Legislature would likely respond by modifying the primary system so that the parties could choose whether to accept independent voters.

For example, California's blanket primary system, where voters were allowed to choose from all candidates regardless of party, was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2000. California then changed its primary system in 2001 to allow parties to decide prior to each election whether voters who decline to state their party preference can participate in the party's primaries.

Pyle said most activists would only want to screen out Republicans.

"It's clearly unfair for someone who is a registered member of one party to manipulate the nomination process of another party," he said.

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.

"It means that the party is alive and well," she said afterward. "We've had a very active debate. This has been going on, as you know, for several months. What happened tonight showed the passion that people have for the Democratic Party.

"People want to stand up and let people know they are Democrats, and we'll be looking for a solution to that, because we want to give more meaning to being a member of the Democratic Party."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.