There are two opposing views of Hawaii’s politics.

On the national level, in this crazy age of Trump, Hawaii is rightly seen as a bastion of sanity. One of our federal judges challenged the president’s travel ban and our national representatives are standing up to Trump’s cruel, reckless policies.

In the national debates on health care during the Obama administration, Hawaii was held up as a model of successful public policy. Indeed, Hawaii’s very existence as a prosperous and harmonious multi-ethnic and multi-racial society is a challenge to Trump’s limited view of a white America. As a result, our national politicians tend to have high approval ratings.

On the other hand, on the state level, Hawaii’s citizens are beleaguered by the high cost of living, mismanagement of public funds, homelessness, traffic and the difficulty of balancing the needs of local residents and the ever-increasing number of visitors. Many locals are disillusioned by a political system that seems unresponsive to their needs. As evidence of this disillusionment, in the 2016 election, Hawaii ranked dead last in participation of eligible voters.

These were among the 36.5 percent of registered voters who turned out in the 2014 general election in Hawaii. We should do better, and we can, the author argues. Brian Tseng/Civil Beat

Citizens stop participating when they don’t like any of their choices, or when they feel like their participation won’t change anything. And indeed, the facts seem to bear this out. Most incumbents in the Hawaii Legislature are easily re-elected. Incumbents are able to fundraise more than their opponents.

Because most legislative districts lean heavily Democratic, the most important contest is often the primary election. Yet, in the most recent primary election only 35 percent of registered voters voted. One could argue that voters stayed home because they were happy with the status quo, but the polls suggest otherwise. Both the governor and mayor of Honolulu have approval ratings around 30 percent, among the lowest in the country.

Challenge The Status Quo

The dilemma of having to pick the lesser of two evils in the ballot box is not a necessary condition of democracy. It is a function of our flawed political system. We can change the system. There are many things we can do to make our system more representative and more accountable to the people.

One way to challenge the status quo would be to use ranked choice voting in Hawaii’s elections.

Ranked choice voting is a beneficial and potentially disruptive innovation. With ranked choice voting, each voter ranks the candidates in a race. If no candidate receives a majority of voters’ first choices, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes go to the voter’s second choice. This process repeats itself until one of the candidates has a majority.

With the status quo, Democratic incumbents in the Legislature are almost impossible to unseat.

This system eliminates the need for primaries and makes it impossible to waste your vote. You can vote for your favorite candidate without having to worry about spoiling the election, or aiding a candidate you don’t like.  Everyone can vote their conscience. It rewards candidates who resonate with a broader spectrum of voters rather than those who only speak to a narrower, more partisan constituency. 

In Hawaii, one problem with the status quo is that Democratic incumbents in the Legislature are almost impossible to unseat, making the Legislature unresponsive to the people. Likewise, even an unpopular Democratic incumbent governor or mayor can retain their position because of a lack of real alternatives.

Voters are hesitant to back a new candidate or third party for fear of wasting their vote. As a result, new candidates are hesitant to run, which then creates a vicious circle that perpetuates the incumbency advantage. Ranked choice voting would lessen that incumbency advantage by allowing everyone to vote their conscience without worrying about aiding a candidate they didn’t like.

In addition to giving voters more control over the government, ranked choice voting has other compelling advantages. It eliminates the need for primary elections, reducing the cost of elections for the state and the time required to vote.

In fact, many states currently use ranked choice voting for overseas military voters, so that they can vote once and have their vote counted in both primary and general elections. Multiple studies have shown that ranked choice voting results in more civil campaigns and less negative campaign ads. Since every candidate is also hoping to be a voter’s second choice, they are motivated to run a more positive campaign.

Or How About A Con Con?

Ranked choice voting would be particularly helpful in out local elections, such as for mayor and City Council seats.  Although these races are ostensibly nonpartisan, voters end up relying on party affiliation to narrow the field.

For the City Council at least, there are often many candidates running in large districts. Ranked choice voting would help voters to narrow the field without having to worry about wasting votes, or voting strategically. Many cities across America successfully use ranked choice voting to choose their mayor and city council members. Voters generally like the system and find it easy to understand and to use.

All federal, state and municipal elections in Hawaii would benefit from ranked choice voting. It’s currently used in many countries, including Scotland, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. In November, Maine voters passed a ballot initiative to use ranked choice voting for state and federal elections, making them the first state to do so.

I invite our state legislators to take up the issue and make Hawaii the second.

Another option would be to amend the Hawaii state constitution. The decision of whether to have a state constitutional convention is on the Hawaii ballot every 10 years and will be on the ballot next year in 2018 for a constitutional convention in 2020. Our last constitutional convention was in 1978, almost 40 years ago. It may be time for another.

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