| Mark Ladao | Star Advertiser |
Hawaii is set to use ranked-choice voting for the first time after state law‑ makers passed a bill that would test the voting method in certain winner-take-all special elections.
Senate Bill 2162 moved out of the state Legislature last week and would be used only during federal contests outside of regularly scheduled primary and general elections along with County Council elections for vacant seats. These special elections are triggered when elected officials leave office before the end of their terms.
We wanted to feel very confident that the voters would understand this
The proposed law would skip this year’s elections and become effective Jan. 1.
About 55 cities, counties and states use some version of ranked-choice voting, according to the nonprofit FairVote.
Ranked voting ensures that candidates are elected by a majority of voters and not a plurality where a candidate can win simply by getting one more vote than their opponent.
Supporters of SB 2162 say it’s important in races with multiple candidates who split the vote so that no one candidate achieves a majority of votes — as is common in some primary election races, including the 2018 lieutenant governor’s race.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green won the 2018 Democratic primary with just 30% of the votes, nudging out former state Sen. Jill Tokuda by less than three percentage points.
“I was trying to avoid someone winning the vote with 7% of the electorate,” said Sen. Karl Rhoads (D, Downtown-Nuuanu-Liliha), who introduced the bill. “It gives the voters a lot more power in terms of who they really want.”
The 2010 special election for Hawaii’s vacant 1st Congressional District seat is perhaps the most oft-cited local example in which the traditional voting method likely led to the election of a candidate who did not represent a majority of voters.
Charles Djou, who ran as a Republican in the race, won the single-round election with less than 40% of the votes despite Hawaii being a heavily Democratic state. He was able to do that because Colleen Hanabusa and Ed Case split the Democratic vote, receiving about 31% and 28% of the ballots cast, respectively.
When they ran head-to-head for the same congressional seat in the general election later that year, Hanabusa beat Djou.
Part of the appeal of ranked-choice voting is that a voter’s ballot isn’t “spoiled” if their first choice is eliminated. And some say ranked-choice voting can deter campaign mudslinging by encouraging candidates to appeal to a wider group of voters.
One of the other hoped-for outcomes of ranked-choice voting is that it would encourage more people to run for office, giving voters more options.
“We would like more people running for office,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii. “We would like ranked-choice voting to be used when there are more people running for office, to increase candidate diversity and to give people more choice in our elections.”
Ranked-choice voting bills have been introduced in the Legislature every year since 2015 and have usually been opposed by Republican lawmakers, who argue it favors Democrats in Hawaii elections and is confusing to voters.
Rep. Gene Ward (R, Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley) has voted against the bill over the years, and during the May 3 floor vote in the House, he argued that the current voting system is just fine.
“If the system is not broken, why fix it?” Ward asked House Speaker Scott Saiki (D, Downtown-Kakaako-McCully). “Why do we have to do ranked-choice voting? You already have a (Democratic) supermajority — do you want more people? Is that the motivation?”
Explaining how votes are counted using ranked-choice voting is admittedly complicated, Rhoads said, but voters in other states appear to have had no problem with it so far.
Janet Mason, a member of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, said the organization didn’t endorse SB 2162 until this year for that reason.
“We wanted to feel very confident that the voters would understand this,” Mason said. “There is more evidence now that in states or cities where this is being used, this has not been a problem.”
Proponents are open to future expansion of ranked-choice voting, but its application in select special elections is meant to test how the voting method fares in Hawaii.