After a tiny fraction of District 1 voters turned out to elect incoming City Council member Tom Berg, city leaders are speaking out about how to prevent such an election in the future.
Just 4.3 percent of registered voters selected Berg in the Dec. 29 election from a field of 14 candidates, according to a Civil Beat analysis. Mayor Peter Carlisle and some City Council members say, as a result, they’re open to the possibility of changing the law to require instant runoffs in special elections. (Read related Civil Beat article.)
“Well, I was elected in a special election, too, but it’s worth looking into,” Carlisle told Civil Beat. “It’s an interesting and intriguing idea. I don’t think you can put a gun to people’s head and force them to do their civic duty, and I do agree with the runoff concept.”
Carlisle said his priority is to encourage more people to vote, and wants the city to explore ways to better reach voters. City council members say that abysmal turn-out requires city attention, but worry about cost.
“For me, instant runoff is something I’d be willing to certainly consider,” City Council member Ikaika Anderson told Civil Beat. “But I think we’d have to take into account the additional tax dollars it would cost to have that runoff because you’re talking about printing additional ballots, and asking people of the district for more time.”
Actually, an instant runoff doesn’t always require multiple rounds of voting. In some cases, voters are asked to rank their choices. If no candidate gets enough votes to win in the first round, the candidate getting the least votes is dropped from the ballot and his or her votes are reallocated to supporters’ second pick.
City Council member Stanley Chang said he believes Honolulu could look to how instant runoff voting works in other jurisdictions, to get ideas about creative options for Honolulu.
“You know I think everything has to be on the table,” Chang said. “I’m not saying this is the answer but, for instance, having it so every person doesn’t get one vote but 10 votes, and you can split up the votes any way. You could give five votes to John Smith, four votes to Jane Smith and one vote to whoever else.”
In the District 1 election last week, not even a quarter of registered voters cast ballots. Just 12,610 — or 23.5 percent — of 53,753 registered voters participated. Berg received 376 more votes than opponent Jason Espero.
“For me to get under 3,000 votes in a field of more than 50,000 when that ballot went to their homes?” Berg said. “You couldn’t ask for anything better. It was a present under the Christmas tree asking who do you want to represent you? And they didn’t even open the package.”
But the incoming council member said he worries that instant runoffs would take too much time. He argues that boosting turn-out would remove any need for altering the process.
“I have another angle, a unique angle,” Berg said. “Show me your stub, that you voted, and you get the day off. If you are apathetic, and you don’t vote, guess what? You don’t get the day off.”
Mayor Carlisle said that the District 1 election shows that even the convenience of voting by mail isn’t enough to prompt the majority of residents to participate in elections. He said it’s worth exploring other options.
“Not just using the mail but also using perhaps elections with a computer,” Carlisle said. “But giving people enough confidence and trust in government so that they want to go out to vote, that would probably make a big difference, too.”
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