Updated 4/8/11 at 9:40 a.m.

Hawaii is two steps away from potentially adopting instant runoff voting and changing the way we cast our ballots. But the issue isn’t free of controversy and some of the details still need to be hashed out.

For the most part, testimony given on House Bill 638 has been overwhelmingly positive. Supporters say the system, called IRV or ranked choice voting, would help ensure elected candidates are supported by a majority of voters.

But it’s still possible that Hawaii voters could elect a non-majority winner even if HB 638 passes. The bill asserts: “Instant runoff voting assures that elected officials have the support of a majority of voters.”

The measure later states, “If after the fourth round of tabulation no candidate has received a majority of the votes cast, then the candidate with the most first choice votes following the fourth round of tabulation shall be declared the winner, regardless of whether that candidate has received a majority of the votes cast.”

In a nutshell, IRV requires residents to rank politicians from their first to fourth choice of preference. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent of voters’ first choices, an “instant runoff” takes place. The candidate with the fewest number of votes is removed from the race, and the eliminated candidate’s votes are transferred to the voters’ second-choice candidate.

The bill has passed the House as well as the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee and needs1 approval by the Senate floor and then a Senate conference committee.

Passionate critics of IRV have joined the debate.

Terry Reilly, former chair for San Jose’s Campaign Finance Review and Ethics Board, submitted testimony opposing the bill. He told Civil Beat that IRV isn’t what it’s made out to be. He says ballots are confusing and in many cases, the claim that a candidate is elected by a majority of voters is flat out wrong.

“We’re not making this stuff up,” Reilly said. “People make more mistakes and usually its the elderly, or those (who use) English as a second language, or other racial minorities.”

Reilly said changing election rules, especially for people who have been casting ballots the same way for decades, can be problematic.

“My mother-in-law, she’s nearly 80 years old now,” Reilly said. “She’s been voting for what, all of 60 some odd years? And doing it one way… All the sudden, she gets thrust with this ballot that has these three columns, four bubbles and then there’s instructions saying do this, do that. They get confused.”

Reilly said it’s a reality but not always easy to convince people that IRV will lead to more spoiled ballots.

“For a guy like me, I gotta tell you,” Reilly said. “I go to city meetings to talk about this to the elections commission and people sitting at City Hall… When you tell somebody that there are people that find this confusing… they think you are from Mars.”

“But here’s the thing: these people are at City Hall at a community meeting. They are engaged.”

A Majority Not Always Represented

Reilly says the notion that IRV ensures a majority-elected official is false.

He pointed Civil Beat in the direction of the official ranked-choice results for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors Nov. 2, 2010 election.

The election used an instant runoff platform, with 21 candidates vying for the position. Because no candidate received a 50 percent majority after the first round of ballot counting, the runoff extended for 20 rounds, until Malia Cohen was declared the victor.

In round 1, Cohen received only 2097 of 20,550 total votes. In theory, if IRV ensured a candidate was elected with a majority of votes, one would think by round 20, Cohen would have accumulated at least 10,276 votes.

But in the end, Cohen won with just 4,321 votes, eclipsing her nearest rival Marlene Tran’s accumulated total of 3,330. Even after receiving all the votes of her vanquished competitors, Cohen won with a little more than 20 percent of the vote.

The votes may have been sparse due to the numerous candidates in the race, but Reilly’s point stands. The victory is reminiscent of Honolulu City Councilman Tom Berg’s win in the District 1 special election race, where he took the seat with 18.5 percent of the vote.

How IRV Would Work In Hawaii

While HB 638 passed the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, politicians will tweak it before it takes the Senate floor for a vote.

Lawmakers are concerned with some aspects of the bill. For example, the measure stipulates that candidates who receive less than one percent of votes will be eliminated after the first round of voting. At the Judiciary Committee meeting, there was talk of amending the bill because that one percent threshold was seen as too small.

Rep. Della Au Belatti, who co-introduced HB 638, told Civil Beat that recent elections where candidates have won in Hawaii with less than a simple majority has been disturbing.

“Like many people, instant runoff voting is something that’s new for me,” Belatti said. “In taking a look at it, I think its got a fair hearing this legislative session and it seems to be something that addresses the concerns about trying to not only have someone who has the most votes, but a majority of the votes.”

The measure has been modified since it was first introduced to specifically apply to county elections without primaries. Belatti says she hopes the bill will become law and that its narrowed scope has strengthened it.

If HB 638 is enacted, Hawaii would join several other communities with IRV, including: Oakland, Berkley, Minnesota, Minneapolis, Memphis, Maine and others states and cities. IRV has also been used in Ireland, Fiji, Australia and the U.K.

That said, some cities have recently taken steps to move away from IRV.

For example, in 2010, residents of Burlington, Vt., repealed an IRV measure enacted in 2005 by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent.

In 2009, voters in Pierce County, Wa, repealed IRV, citing high costs and confusing ballots.

Most recently, on April 5, residents of Fort Collins, Co, voted overwhelmingly to reject IRV for their city elections. Opponents of the measure said the voting system in place was adequate, and that IRV would overcomplicate the counting of ballots, according to Coloradoan.com.