For the past six years, a faction within the Democratic Party of Hawaii has been angling to close the primaries to independent voters. Senator Daniel Inouye strongly argued against such a move, and his opposition kept the close-the-primaries faction at bay. But last month, six months after Inouye’s death, party activists filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force the State of Hawaii to change the state’s constitution which currently reads: “No person shall be required to declare a party preference or nonpartisanship as a condition of voting in any primary…”
This despite the fact that President Obama, a native of Hawaii, would not have won the Democratic Party nomination in 2008 were it not for independents being able to vote in presidential primaries in 33 states.
This is the first time that a state Democratic Party organization has filed suit seeking to bar independents from voting in primaries. They join the Republican Parties in Idaho and South Carolina in seeking to force the state to conduct closed primaries.
If the Democratic Party thought they could make this move without consequences, they were mistaken.
On Sunday, IndependentVoting.org placed an advertisement in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser drawing attention to the lawsuit and enlisting Democrats, Republicans and independents who favor open primaries to sign a letter urging the Democratic Party of Hawaii to back down. The letter begins: We, the undersigned, ask that you withdraw your federal lawsuit seeking to enact closed primaries here in Hawaii. We are independents, Democrats and Republicans who believe that all voters must be able to participate in the process if our democracy is to work effectively…
The Associated Press wrote an article about it which was picked up nationally and quotes from my colleague Jackie Salit: “The lawsuit would narrow the democratic process and goes against Hawaii’s spirit of openness and inclusiveness.” While there have been similar attempts by Republicans, “this is the first time in recent history that a state Democratic Party has taken this action.”
And the Democratic Party itself is split. Party activists are leading the charge for a closed primary, while many elected officials favor the current open system.
The Democrats and the Republicans are responding to the current political/economic/social crisis in a very particular way. Their top concern is ensuring continued status as “political gatekeepers.” The voters are clamoring for new forms of participation and connection that are not defined by old institutions and old technologies. But the parties are not eager to relinquish their control. Why else would the Democratic Party of Hawaii be seeking to change a system that is clearly working for them? It is not just about winning elections (they already win all of them). It’s the party asserting “we will decide how democracy works in Hawaii.”
The battle for open primaries is straightforward. The parties want to continue to mediate the relationship between the voters our government. But times are changing. Many people don’t want to participate in that way anymore, and the open primaries fight—in Hawaii and elsewhere—boils down to a basic but philosophically important point: what kind of democracy do we need to move our country forward?
Photo: Voters in Hawaii go to the polls at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School // Dennis Fujimoto via The Garden Island