On Nov. 5, 2002, Patsy Mink was re-elected to Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District with 52 percent of the vote. She had died six weeks earlier.
Mink, author of the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act and the first Asian American to seek the Democratic nomination for president (in 1972), was no ordinary politician.
Hawaii seems to fall in love with every member of its delegation. None has ever lost re-election, and in the last three elections Hawaii’s two U.S. representatives have received at least 60 percent of the vote. In 2008 Reps. Mazie Hirono and Neil Abercrombie both received 70 percent.
By contrast, the winner in the May 22 special primary to replace Abercrombie in the 1st Congressional District will probably receive only a plurality of the vote, perhaps as little as 35-45 percent.
Is this any way to elect a U.S. representative?
It’s worth considering whether Hawaii’s special election system best serves voters.
One approach, called instant runoff voting, is used in some states, cities and several countries. Also known as preferential or ranked-choice voting, nonpartisan advocacy groups like Common Cause have pushed for instant runoff voting.
Here’s how “IRV” works: Voters rank ballot candidates in order of preference — i.e., 1, 2, 3. If no candidate emerges with a majority, the lowest-scoring candidates are eliminated and the top preferred candidates then face each other in an instant runoff election — and sometimes more — until a majority winner emerges.
U.S. cities using instant runoff include San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Several states, such as North Carolina and Arkansas, have used IRV in some elections. The Center for Voting and Democracy has a comprehensive list.
Julia Queen, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Federal Election Commission, said the decision on instant-runoff voting is up to states. The only state she could identify using IRV on a consistent basis is Louisiana.
As for special elections like Hawaii’s, Queen described the process as “pretty standard.” States holding special elections in 2010 include Florida’s 19th Congressional District, Georgia’s 9th Congressional District, and Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District.
Hawaii’s Legislature has heard proposals on implementing instant runoff elections, including a 2006 bill that attracted supportive testimony from groups like the League of Women Voters of Hawaii. Thus far, though, lawmakers have been lukewarm to the idea.
Yet, Hawaii does have a form of instant runoff voting — at the county level.
A prominent example: When Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann ran for re-election in 2008, he faced eight opponents, including City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi and UH engineering professor Panos Prevedouros.
In the September primary the mayor earned 48.1 percent of the vote, but because of City and County of Honolulu charter rules, he needed 50 percent plus one to win outright. Hannemann was forced to run in the November general election against second-place finisher Kobayashi. He prevailed 56-41 percent.
The Honolulu mayor has over 900,000 constituents compared with about 600,000 in each congressional district.
The top three candidates out of the field of 14 in the special election say they’re not particularly concerned with a winner having only a plurality.
On May 24, the new representative will start his or her job with only seven months job security. To win a two-year term beginning in January, the victor will still have to win a party primary and a general election later this year.
“It’s not going to impact how I serve in Congress,” Charles Djou, the Republican front-runner in the winner-take-all contest, told Civil Beat. “My primary duty is to represent the people of Hawaii. That’s my first loyalty, not to a political party. I don’t think I am going to win with 50 percent, but whether it’s by 1 percent or 14 percent, I always know that I’m still going to have to work extra hard to stay in touch with voters.”
As to the short tenure in office, Djou said he is certain that he can be effective.
“The most immediate thing is that Honolulu will have representation again after several months without,” he said.
Democrat Ed Case, who represented the 2nd district for about five years, agrees that a short-timer can be influential.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Whether I have a plurality or a majority, it’s no difference in being effective. It is not an issue.”
Case noted that he had been elected to Congress with and without majorities.
That he has. In the Nov. 30, 2002, special election to serve out the end of Mink’s term, he took 51 percent of the vote in a race that featured 38 candidates. Less than six weeks later, in the Jan. 4 special election to fill the seat for the next two years, Case received 43.2 percent in spite of a field that numbered 44.
By 2004, when Case next ran for re-election, he won with more than 60 percent the vote.
Like Case and Djou, Democrat Colleen Hanabusa, the third main candidate in the May 22 contest, told Civil Beat she was not bothered by a winner going to D.C. without majority support.
“Ben Cayetano only had a plurality when he was elected governor,” she said. “And remember the 1986 race.”
That year, Abercrombie won a special election to fill a 1st district vacancy. But he lost a primary election held at the same time to Hannemann, who went on to lose the general election to Republican Pat Saiki. Abercrombie spent less than four months in office but would successfully run for Saiki’s seat in 1990, when she unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate.
Hanabusa is already planning to be be a candidate in the Sept. 18 primary for the Democratic nod.
Case, however, said he would not commit to run in the primary “quote unquote no matter what.”
“What if I got dusted badly in third place?” he told Civil Beat, before quickly adding, “I don’t think that will happen.”