A measure that would bring instant runoff voting to Hawaii and prevent a candidate from winning a state or local election with less than a majority of votes is making progress in the Legislature.

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed House Bill 638 on Tuesday. It now heads to the House Finance Committee.

“I’m glad that it’s going to hearing and that we can possibly have a process voters are confident in,” said Rep. Della Au Belatti, who sponsored the bill. “We want a stronger democracy and we want elected officials that are supported by a larger majority. IRV provides more confidence in the process.”

“It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a way to strengthen our democracy. The winner-take-all approach can be disempowering for some voters because voters might think their vote doesn’t count,” she said.

Instant runoff voting has garnered public interest in part because of a recent Honolulu City Council race. In December, Tom Berg was one of 14 candidates in a special election to represent District 1 and won with just 2,326 votes — or 4.3 percent of registered voters.

The bill’s proponents argue that the existing system may not reward the candidate with the most general support.

But the instant runoff system is not without controversy. Some cities implemented instant runoff voting, only to later repeal it after candidates found ways to game the system.

Instant run-off voting, as defined by Hawaii’s bill, would allow voters to rank their candidates by preference instead of choosing a single candidate.

Then, if no candidate wins the majority of the vote, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the votes for the eliminated candidate are transferred to the voters’ second choice. In addition, any candidate with one percent or less of the votes would have their votes reallocated to the voters’ second choice.

FairVote, a Maryland-based organization that seeks to reform voting policy, says instant runoff voting allows for better representation of the majority choice.

“Outcomes have been by and large positive,” said Rob Richie, FairVote’s executive director.

Richie believes that instant runoff voting could have changed the outcome of Hawaii’s special election for Congress last year. Three candidates split the vote in the May 2010 election, allowing Republican Charles Djou to win with 39.4 percent of the vote, followed by Democrat Colleen Hanabusa with 30.8 percent and Democrat Ed Case with 27.6 percent.

“The Hawaii (1st congressional district special) election last year was a clear example of an election that stood to benefit from instant runoff voting,” said Richie.

“(Instant runoff voting) would have clarified whether (Djou) had more support than Hanabusa when compared one-on-one,” he said.

Other cities around the country have adopted instant runoff voting in recent years.

San Francisco called it “Ranked choice voting” when it adopted the system in 2004. The cities of Ferndale, MI., and Burlington, Vt., approved instant-runoff voting in 2004 and 2005.

Some other state and local governments that have adopted include Arkansas; South Carolina; Hendersonville, N.C.; Minneapolis; San Leandro, Calif.; and Takoma Park, Md.

Gaming the System

While the testimony submitted on Hawaii’s bill was largely positive, experiences of some states show instant runoff voting can create unintended winners.

In Burlington, Vt., the voting system became controversial after a mayor won two elections through instant runoff voting simply by earning a lot of second- and third-choice votes.

Mayor Bob Kiss was elected in 2006 and was re-elected in 2009.

“One of the issues was that with an instant run-off, everyone had to be nice to each other to get someone’s second or third vote. It prevented lively discourse and the ability for candidates to distinguish themselves,” said Ed Adrian, a Burlington City Council member.

But after Kiss became embroiled in controversy over funding of a local telecom, the public began to question the mayor’s competence — and the voting system that elected him.

The same year Kiss was re-elected, voters repealed instant runoff voting by 53 percent to 47 percent. The city returned to the old policy of holding a runoff if no candidate receives more than 40 percent of the vote.

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