In local political circles, the discussion about Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s anticipated resignation has long been characterized not by “if,” but by “when.” After more than a year of talking about it, today is the day Hannemann has to resign as mayor to officially run for governor.

The end to Hannemann’s mayoral tenure will also set off a chain of events in the race for his replacement. Here’s the way it works:

  1. Mayor Mufi Hannemann resigns.
  2. Honolulu Managing Director and mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell becomes acting mayor.
  3. The City Council will meet, likely on Wednesday, to pick a date for the mayoral election as specified by the City Charter. (It will either be the Sept. 18 primary or the Nov. 2 general election.)
  4. Mayoral candidates then have 10 days to file candidacy papers.

The City Council‘s task is not as straightforward as it may seem, not least of all because two of its nine members are among those running for mayor. But it has potentially major implications.

  • Turnout is much higher for general elections than for primary elections. For example, in 2008, 66 percent of registered voters in Honolulu cast ballots in the general election after 37 percent voted in the primary. A mayoral election on the primary election date would tend to give an edge to better-known candidates.
  • A November election might even the playing field for candidates, giving voters more time to get to know them. But it also would delay citizens having elected representation in the mayor’s office.

This particular race for mayor is a winner-take-all scenario, a now familiar dynamic to Honolulu voters: It’s the same type of election that sent former City Council member Charles Djou to Congress with 39.5 percent of the vote in a special election in May. Regularly scheduled Honolulu mayor’s races — which are usually held in conjunction with autumn primary elections — require a run-off election when no candidate wins a majority. That’s what happened in 2008, Hannemann’s most recent victory.

But because this race is for a mayor elected only to fill the remainder of Hannemann’s second term, the winner is the person who gets the most votes — even if that figure is barely more than 20 percent in a five-man race.

That’s just one element of the race that makes the director of a national voters advocacy group uneasy.

“We can see the value of a one-round election to get this done, but we think it’s better to get a majority winner,” said Rob Richie, executive director of Maryland-based FairVote. “A November election with instant runoff would allow greater voter choice without this weird, dysfunctional dynamic.”

A later election would give voters a better chance to get to know the candidates asking for their support, Richie said.

“A quick election gets it done faster, but it also makes it harder for someone who isn’t known to mount a campaign,” he said. “So it’s necessary to find the balance between the practical fact of it being better to have an elected person represent the people than an appointed person, with making the candidate mayor who is (the) best representative of the people.”

That’s a stance shared by Caldwell, who will be acting mayor while running for the office. He says that’s partly why he wants the election to be in November.

“A certain chemistry evolves in any campaign,” Caldwell said. “It takes time for that to come together. It takes a while to get to know someone, and the mayor’s race is something where you need to get up close and personal. It takes listening to debates, watching them in action and talking to them face to face. The mayor takes care of basic needs. This is the man or woman who makes sure your trash is picked up, your sewage system is maintained, the roads are working.”

Campaigning For November

In Caldwell’s case, a November election would also give him three solid months as acting mayor. He doesn’t deny it could certainly serve him to have voters associate him with the job he wants, but Caldwell says the opportunity for voters to get to know him better is second to the priority of ensuring voters have the opportunity to cast ballots.

“Historically, there’s an increased voter turnout in general elections,” he said. “That means more people participating in democracy, so I always lean toward an opportunity for greater voter turnout. And, in this case, there’s so much at stake. The person who will serve the remainder of the Hannemann term has the potential to serve as mayor for a total of 10 years.”

Mayoral candidate and City Council member Donovan Dela Cruz said he, too, wants the election to take place in November. (Another City Council member and mayoral candidate, Rod Tam, did not return phone calls before publication.) Dela Cruz’s reasoning, he said, has to do with the time it takes to send and receive absentee ballots to out-of-state voters.

“I would always want more people participating,” said Dela Cruz. “I know with the primary, we wouldn’t be able to allow overseas soldiers to vote. For anyone running for office, we may be partial to a quicker election, but you don’t want to exclude people. Regardless of how you feel, personally, what might be advantageous or not, you gotta think about those kind of things.”

The Sooner, The Better

Conversely, and perhaps predictably, two of the candidates who already have distinct advantages in the race argue the election should be held as quickly as possible, along with the Sept. 18 primary.

“People are entitled to be represented by a mayor they have elected, not by one that has been appointed,” said Mayoral candidate and Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Peter Carlisle, who has won office four consecutive times in Honolulu. “The sooner they have an elected mayor, the sooner our right and their democracy is upheld.”

The electoral advantage civil engineer Panos Prevedouros has is that he’s the only candidate who is against the city’s proposed rail project. Prevedouros spells it out on his campaign website: If he can get all the anti-rail votes, he wins.

“It has to be September,” Prevedouros said. “The mayor is abandoning the spot, and there is no authority for the managing director to be mayor for months. Mayor is an elected position. We cannot delay that for an extra two months.”

Prevedouros doesn’t have it quite right, though. Managing Director Caldwell not only has the authority to act as mayor for months, the City Charter requires an appointed figure to fill the gap for as long as it takes to elect a mayor.

What voter advocate Richie finds disturbing is that the City Council has the discretion to select the date, potentially influencing the outcome with its decision.

“Policy makers having this level of discretion just makes me a little queasy as a policy matter,” Richie said. “It’s always tricky to give policy makers discretion over something that could be gained. And there’s definitely something to be gained here. As a policy matter, it seems like they should say, ‘If there’s a regularly scheduled primary within ‘X’ days, that’s what you should do. Period. I think three and a half months is not that long a time to make sure you have the right person to serve two years. That would be a sensible decision and less prone to a lower turnout.”

By The Numbers

Turnout is an issue even in Honolulu’s most straightforward elections. In both general elections and primary elections since statehood, data from the State Office of Elections shows voter turnout in Honolulu has been on the decline. Historically, though, general elections have always been a bigger draw for Honolulu voters.

City and County of Honolulu Primary Election Turnout

Year Registered Voters Voter Turnout Turnout as Percentage
1959 123,298 102,274 82.9 percent
1966 187,485 129,677 69.2 percent
1974 256,097 178,729 69.8 percent
1980 284,013 196,283 69.1 percent
1988 308,140 201,358 65.3 percent
1992 304,539 172,039 56.5 percent
1996 377,287 199,201 52.8 percent
2000 439,934 189,432 43.1 percent
2004 430,285 184,860 43.0 percent
2008 450,522 167,047 37.1 percent

City and County of Honolulu General Election Turnout

Year Registered Voters Voter Turnout Turnout as Percentage
1959 130,711 121,999 93.3 percent
1966 193,107 166,187 86.1 percent
1974 263,849 205,903 78.0 percent
1980 297,533 234,469 78.8 percent
1988 325,614 270,223 83.0 percent
1992 328,463 272,081 82.8 percent
1996 386,546 261,781 67.7 percent
2000 444,945 258,002 57.9 percent
2004 445,253 300,265 67.4 percent
2008 466, 499 308,443 66.1 percent

As far as elections officials are concerned, they’re along for the ride. Because the mayoral election is set to be tacked onto the ballot of a state-run election, officials at the city clerk’s office are relieved of much involvement.

“It just happens that it’s within the timeframe where the City Council can call it during a regularly scheduled election,” said Chadd Kadota, the city’s assistant elections administrator. “For us, it’s just pretty much having the ability to put that race on the ballot that’s being distributed.”

On a state level, elections officials are equally hands off.

“They just give us the names on the ballots,” said Scott Nago, the state’s chief elections officer. “We just make the services available, whether or not somebody chooses to take advantage of them. We try to make it as convenient as possible.”

Nago said it’s not his office’s job to have a preference on when an election takes place, or to speculate about the factors that affect turnout.

No matter when the election occurs, most of Honolulu’s mayoral candidates say they anticipate they’ll have to work hard to let it be known an election is even happening.

“It’s really a sprint either way,” said Caldwell. “If you ask most people if there is going to be a mayor’s race, they have no idea. Even when Hannemann resigns, they’ll be focused on Hannemann running for governor. I don’t think most people realize someone else will be mayor. When I go to bon dances and say, ‘I’m Kirk Caldwell, I’m running for mayor,’ they say, ‘What? A race for mayor?’ I explain and they usually just say, ‘Yeah, yeah, OK, we’ll talk to you when there’s really a race, when the mayor actually resigns.’”

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