Civil unions and the problem with direct democracy

July 7, 2010
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That Hawaii’s governor Linda Lingle (R) should so curiously veto HR444, and rest the decision of Civil Unions on the people in a referendum seems an obvious attempt at building a Republican base. It is absurd that civil rights should ever be put through a referendum– rights are to protect minorities, referendums are to give voice to majorities.

HB444 extends the “same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities of spouses in a marriage to partners in a civil union.” When it comes down to it, Civil Unions are a civil rights issue, and as such should be addressed through the state and federal constitution.

Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution formally defines citizenship and protects a person’s civil and political rights from being abridged or denied by any state. As such, the idea that civil unions be left up to a referendum puts the outcome of this right on the direct democracy of the people rather than the representative democracy of the legislature.

In a speech at the capitol yesterday, Gov. Lingle said, “The subject of this legislation has touched the hearts and minds of our citizens as no other social issue of our day. It would be a mistake to allow a decision of this magnitude to be made by one individual or a small group of elected officials.”

Further she adds, “while ours is a system of representative government, it also is one that recognizes that from time to time there are issues that require the reflection, collective wisdom and consent of the people, and reserves to them the right to directly decide those matters.

Although the idea of the referendum, plebiscite or “direct democracy” sounds  rhetorically reasonable, the historical reality is that it can only work when everyone votes.  Referendums primarily, have only engaged those who have had a vested interest in an issue. It often corrupts those who do not fully understand the implication of such issues, and excludes those (as the linked CVF survey reveals) who for many reasons choose not to register to vote; not the least of them being a belief that it is “too hard to sift through all the information available to make good decisions on how to vote”.

The statehood plebiscite was such a vote– the state asserting that 94.6% of the population voted for statehood– when in reality only 39% of eligible voters, voted. The state can claim a landslide victory for those who registered to vote, but how does one factor in those other 61% who felt excluded from the process? Clearly during the statehood vote, the inertia– the media and propaganda mill– was pro-statehood. There was little anti-statehood sentiment publicly expressed, the most vocal perhaps being Alice Kamokila Campbell, who opposed it because she mistakenly assumed that it was the majority of those of Japanese Ancestry (AJAs) and the Big Five that wanted statehood. (many of the Big Five opposed statehood, and the bulk– not majority– of AJAs who did vote, did so to begin asserting rights that had been stripped of them during the war).

Putting the Civil Unions bill to referendum, will do nothing but help organize the strong Christian conservatives, as represented by, for example, the well-organized and well-funded socially conservative New Hope Church. Prioritizing conservative values over the diversity that traditionally has come to define Hawaii is a strategy that the republicans know well, and will allow them to possibly further galvanize republican leadership in Hawaii.  Lingle, through vetoing HR444, is manipulating the public to come out in favor of the party that best represents their conservative values, challenging the progressive-leaning  Civil Union supporters who continue to advocate and defend principles that best protect our civil rights and liberties.

At a lunch today, J.O. commented that he’d like to see how this referendum would be worded.

Let me try: Should gays and lesbians be allowed the same rights and privileges as traditionally married couples?

This is a minority/civil rights issue and should not be left to the fears and insecurities of the public.

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1. John S. Whitehead, “The Anti Statehood Movement and the Legacy of Alice Kamokila Campbell” Hawaiian Journal of History, Vol 27, 1993.

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