Ranked Choice Voting Will Improve Hawaii Elections

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In May 2010, voters in Hawaii did something they had done only twice since statehood in 1959: elected a Republican to the United States Congress.

Charles Djou won a special election to complete about the seventh month of the tenure of U.S. Representative Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat who resigned earlier that year to run for governor. Because it was a special election, it was a non-partisan contest – there was no party primary – and Djou won in a field of 14 winners with just 39 % voices.

But Democrats Colleen Hanabusa and Ed Case received nearly 31% and 28% of the special election vote, respectively, showing that a solid majority of voters in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District preferred a Democrat over a Republican.

Indeed, Hanabusa easily won the Democratic primary in September for a new two-year term – Case dropped out of the race and endorsed Hanabusa – and she beat Representative Djou in November by 6 percentage points.

It was not a fluke. Hanabusa also beat Djou in a rematch in 2012 by almost 10 percentage points. Djou never returned to Congress, losing to Democrat Mark Takai in 2014.

Charles Djou and Colleen Hanabusa competed for a seat in the United States House in 2010, where the win-win format did not necessarily mean that a candidate favored by the majority actually won it.

Had Hawaii implemented a ranked choice vote, it is quite possible that Hanabusa or Case would have won the 2010 special election, keeping the seat in the hands of the Democrats. Since 1971, Democrats have won the seat 17 times compared to Republicans just twice.

In other words, Hawaii’s electoral system did not serve the interests of the majority of voters in 2010.

But if the Hawaii legislature passes and the governor of Hawaii enacts the choice vote for the federal special elections – but also the special elections for vacant county seats and statewide races for the governor and lieutenant governor – our elected leaders would more equitably reflect the wishes of the electorate.

A majority winner

Ranked choice voting, sometimes referred to as instant voting (or RCV and IRV, for short), gives voters the ability to choose candidates for election in order of preference. The ballot asks voters to rank the candidates – first, second, third, and so on – and the candidate with the majority of the top picks wins.

If a candidate wins with 50% of the vote, the ranking system does not need to come into play. The results would be the same as in any other single-choice election.

But if there is no majority winner, as is often the case when several candidates compete for the same position, the race is determined by an “instant second round”, that is, as soon as ballots can be compiled.

As FairVote, a non-partisan organization explains, “The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and voters who chose that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their votes counted towards their next choice. This process continues until there is a majority winner or a candidate won with more than half of the votes.

A screenshot of the appearance of a ranked choice ballot, from FairVote.
A screenshot from the FairVote website showing what a ranked choice ballot might look like.

FairVote says RCV promotes majority rule: “Voters can honestly rank the candidate they like the most, without worrying that it will help the candidate they like the least. With more choice, voters have more power.

Does that sound radical to you? Not at all.

The Non-Partisan National Conference of State Legislatures points out that RCV has a 100-year history in the United States, with several cities adopting it in the 1920s and 1930s. By 2020, more than a dozen cities were using RCV, including Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota, and San Francisco and Oakland in California.

In July, Eric Adams won the Democratic primary for mayoralty in New York City, where voters ranked up to five candidates in order of preference. Tabulation errors on the part of city officials delayed the results but did not affect the final result.

It should be noted that Adams, who now faces a Republican candidate in the November general election, is black while the three finalists included two women – one black – and an Asian man. FairVote cites a California Bay Area study that found people of color perform at a higher rate on RCV.

The California section of the group says it has also resulted in greater diversity among elected officials, including women. And there are a number of indications that participation increases with RCV as well.

In addition to greater gender and ethnic diversity, the NCSL says the voting system also limits the “spoiler” effect of independent candidates or minor parties in plurality elections.

“With preferential voting, voters can choose their first choice from a minority party and a candidate from one of the two major parties as their second choice. If no candidate receives 50% of the first choice selections, the voter ‘s second choice – a Democrat or a Republican – would get the vote. “

RCV arrives in Hawaii

Last year, Maine became the first state to use the RCV in a general presidential election through a citizens’ initiative. That same year, Alaska also adopted the RCV via a voting measure, says NCSL. And FairVote says that a a dozen states use or have adopted the RCV in local elections, including California, Oregon, New York and Florida.

Even Hawaii has started using the RCV, albeit in a limited way.

Last year we became one of four states to use RCV in a presidential primary. Joe Biden defeated Bernie Sanders in a mail-in vote in the mail-order election hosted by the Hawaii Democratic Party, with the final tally showing Elizabeth Warren third, Tulsi Gabbard fourth and six other Democrats on the ballot.

If Hawaii were to pass the RRS, the legislature is the place to do it. Fortunately, bills have been considered by our lawmakers, including in the 2021 session that has since ended. These bills are postponed until the next session which begins in January.

Detail of the 2020 Hawaii Democratic Party presidential primary ballot.

One measure would establish ranked choice voting for all partisan primary elections, special elections and non-partisan general elections held in the state. Another measure would provide the RCV for federal special elections and special elections for vacant county council seats.

This latest bill, Senate Bill 560, managed to pass before it died in the final days of the session. But he’s technically still alive and can be picked up next year.

There will inevitably be resistance to changing the way we vote. But change can happen. Hawaii successfully passed all mail-in votes in 2020 after several years of unsuccessful attempts. The result was the highest turnout since 1994.

The legislature built on that success by approving legislation this year to improve postal voting, in part by requiring the state election office and the country’s clerks to decide whether they need more. voter service centers. Another new law automatically integrates a voter registration request with all applications for state ID cards and driver’s licenses.

Interested in making preferential choice voting a permanent part of our electoral system? Contact your legislator now.


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