Should Hawaii Rewrite Its Constitution — Again?

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King Kamehameha I

Hawaii approaches Nov. 4 with great anticipation. After all, the Honolulu-born Barack Obama may just become the next President of the United States. But there is something else on the ballot that makes a lot of locals uneasy: the chance to rewrite the state's charter by starting up a constitutional convention. Hawaii is one of three states (the others being Illinois and Connecticut) with the issue of rewriting its constitution on the ballot. And it is also the object lesson for all who'd like to do so. Hawaii has convened what locals call "ConCons" twice since 1968, both with far reaching consequences. Now several influential groups are calling for a third. "You have no idea what can happen," says veteran Honolulu journalist Jerry Burris, who covered the hot and humid ConCon in the summer of 1978 that convened in downtown Honolulu's old federal building, directly across from Iolani Palace, the seat of the former Kingdom of Hawaii.

Hawaii's first Constitutional Convention was organized in 1968 to correct problems with state legislative voting districts — and ended up giving public workers the right to strike. Ten years later, the islands' second ConCon began with no particular agenda, just a feeling in the post-Watergate era that Hawaii's government needed to be more accountable to its people. Nevertheless, it resulted in 34 separate amendments — more than 1,000 individual changes to Hawaii's state constitution — that included the addition of the untranslated phrase, "Ua mau ke ea o ka 'aina i ka pono" in the constitution's preamble — "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness." It was a sweeping victory for Native Hawaiian rights and culture.

(Click here for a TIME Archive story on Hawaii's statehood.)

The 102 delegates to the 1978 ConCon created the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs; made Hawaiian one of the official languages of the islands; amended Hawaii's Bill of Rights to refer to King Kamehameha I's "Law of the Splintered Paddle" in decreeing that the modern-day state has the power to provide for the safety of its people; and required public schools to teach Hawaiian education (which typically means inculcating students with Hawaiian songs, language and native cuisine), which has since become a staple of fourth-grade curriculum in the islands.

In a state where elderly Native Hawaiians, or kupuna, still tell horror stories of being beaten for speaking their native language in public, many of the 1978 changes to the state's constitution crystalized the renaissance in Hawaiian culture that included a resurgence in hula dancing and the practice of navigating canoes over thousands of miles of open ocean while relying on only the natural elements of wind, waves and stars — a technique known as "wayfaring."

The stratification is such that Hawaii today is a state where not all residents can be called Hawaiian. There is no single ethnic majority in the state and only people who are descended from the original inhabitants of the islands are properly called Hawaiians. Residents of Asian, Caucasian, African or other descent are simply called locals. It is the Hawaiians, who made up 21% of the state's population in 2007 — down from 23% in 2000 — who most vocally oppose a new ConCon, concerned that it would dilute their position in the islands. "People who have achieved about as much as they can achieve don't want to open it up again," Burris says. Their allies are the Democratic Party of Hawaii, major unions and environmental organizations. A ConCon, they say, could erode the rights of Native Hawaiians, which continue to come under attack in the courts

Advocating a ConCon are the Republican Party of Hawaii, the police chiefs and prosecutors of every major Hawaiian island, the state Attorney General, the lieutenant governor and former Hawaii Congressman Ed Case, the cousin of AOL co-founder Steve Case. Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, a Republican, set the ConCon process in motion last year when he directed election officials to put the question on next week's general election ballot. In calling for the latest ConCon, Aiona says, "It's long overdue." A ConCon could well allow Hawaii's Republican governor, Linda Lingle, to create local school districts by breaking up the nation's only state-wide, centralized public educational system. Meanwhile, the police and prosecutors, who have already gotten laws on the books tightening restrictions on evidence rules, would like to see those changes worked into the constitution.

The expected record turnout for the island's favorite son Obama on Nov. 4 may result in the anti-ConCon groups having their way. But, given the political conservative nature of the state, it is not guaranteed.

Still, no matter what the agenda may be, conventions have a way of running away from the people who conceive them. Anne Feder Lee, an expert on the state constitution who opposes a ConCon, says it's impossible to predict what will happen if voters decide to have one. Feder Lee, a retired University of Hawaii West Oahu political science professor, says the original delegates to the 1968 ConCon had no idea what would result from their inaugural convention. They were supposed to fix a problem with reapportionment districts that dated to statehood in 1959. But they did not stop there and went on to set the minimum age of state legislators at 18; set up a commission to determine legislative salaries; eliminate a requirement that people had to be able to read or write English or Hawaiian in order to vote; and wrote a constitutional provision granting privacy rights that Feder Lee says was ahead of its time. Some of the changes were good for island society, Feder Lee says. None of them could be predicted. "The only thing we know for certain," Feder Lee says, "is we never know what will come out of a ConCon."