Democracy in Hawaii is broken.
Of all 50 states, Hawaii ranks dead last in voter participation. Each election, a dwindling number of voters turn out to the polls to cast their votes in races that are more or less predetermined. Incumbents almost always win reelection. As a result, that foundational link between representatives and their constituents is weakening.
The typical response to this problem is either reforms to make voting easier (although even this is an uphill battle in the legislature who may not consider this a problem), or the argument that those lazy, unconcerned citizens just need to make time vote. While I support making voting easier and I would like for everyone to be involved, I feel like both of these responses miss the point. Voters don’t vote because they feel like their votes donʻt matter and they are mostly right — they seldom have real choices.
Even if an individual voter became involved in insurgent campaigns against an incumbent, that would still be only one race. The problem is that our current electoral system strongly favors incumbent politicians, which in turn preserves the status quo. In this system, in our state, the essential contest is the primary elections, which is decided by an even smaller percentage of voters.
Paradoxically, the electoral dominance of the Democratic Party has made the party and its members increasingly irrelevant, closing down another avenue of participation. Traditionally, political parties provide a shortcut for less informed voters to choose between unfamiliar candidates. However, due to the dominance of the Democratic Party, many candidates run as Democrats but show little allegiance to the core commitments of the party. Then, once a politician wins an election as a Democrat in a Democratic-leaning district, their primary job is to not rock the boat so they can keep their position indefinitely.
So, they refuse to take stands that might alienate voters and avoid committing to positions on issues. Most bills pass unanimously or die quiet deaths in committee without ever having a hearing. Most of the real discussion, assuming it happens at all, happens behind closed doors without public input.
Voters are understandably frustrated with the system that is no longer serving their interests. Each legislative session we get a little bit more tinkering around the edges and the large issues facing our state, transportation, affordable housing, energy, climate change and resilience, remain unaddressed. The current system is designed to maintain the status quo. It serves the interests of those who are happy with the status quo, and is not very responsive to those who are neglected and excluded.
Part of the problem is that we mistakenly assume that our democratic system is the only one there is. This system seems so natural it is hard to imagine alternatives. We don’t think about the way we run our elections, one winner in each race, as a particular form of democracy, but just as democracy.
The current system is designed to maintain the status quo.
However, this system, which political scientists call “first past the post,” is among the least democratic, least efficient forms of representative government.
Perhaps a more charitable way of thinking of it can be as Democracy 1.0, an important step in political systems that transformed the world, but that has since been superseded. (In fact, the only places that still use “first past the post” are the United Kingdom and its former colonies.)
In addition to the problems created by this system in Hawaii, nationwide there is a sense that our democracy is broken, due to gerrymandering, uncompetitive districts, the outsized role of money in elections, and a two-party monopoly on power that has increased partisanship to the detriment of public debate. These problems are not inevitable, but are flaws unique to or exacerbated by our particular form of democracy.
The solutions to these problems are readily available. The single most important change is to create a system of proportional representation, which is used by 94 countries worldwide. The basic idea of proportional representation is incredibly simple — that the representatives in the Legislature should be equal to the proportion of citizens who vote for them. If a political party earns 25 percent of the overall vote, they earn 25 percent of the legislative seats, regardless of how they fared in each district.
Fairness and equality are foundational principles of American democracy, but are imperfectly realized in the current system. With proportional representation, every vote counts, even if you are a minority in your district. In Hawaii, despite the fact that Republican voters may make up a significant minority of the population, there are no Republicans in the Senate and only a handful in the House. This is a failure of our democracy — invisible from the left — because a significant percentage of the people of Hawaii are unrepresented in our government.
With proportional representation, every vote counts, even if you are a minority in your district.
With proportional representation every election would be competitive and would be a true contest of ideas and a legitimate expression of the will of the people. Although the Democratic Party has accomplished a lot in Hawaii, unchallenged single party rule has also made decision making more opaque and made it easier for corruption to go unchecked. Proportional representation would create viable opposition parties that are a check on this power. Proportional representation has the potential to revitalize political parties and increase participation statewide. Studies show that countries with proportional representation have, on average, 7.5 percent higher voter turnout and voters are more satisfied with their governments, even when an opposition party is in power. More competition between parties will force each party to become a more dynamic and democratic institution. If a party fails to deliver for the electorate, voters will have other, viable options.
Although there are many different forms of proportional representation, the most appropriate for Hawaii would probably be one that combines multimember districts with party list seats. To create multi-member districts, single member districts would be combined into larger districts that each have three or five representatives. (I am also in favor of increasing the number of seats statewide). Everyone competing in these district run against each other in one election. The five candidates with the most votes are all sent to the Legislature.
There are numerous advantages to such a system. Incumbents running for office are competing with each other for votes, so the advantages of incumbency are considerably decreased. Voters can choose between various types of Democrats in a general election, so a number of progressive or conservative Democrats from a larger area can pool their votes for a candidate who most closes matches them ideologically.
New candidates can win a seat without having to wait for someone to retire or trying to unseat a well-financed incumbent. When combined with ranked choice voting, this means that almost every voter will have at least one candidate that was one of their top choices and someone who will be sympathetic to their concerns, i.e., a representative in the Legislature, as they should have.
It might also make sense to maintain some single member seats in rural areas or neighbor islands, so their particular concerns are not subsumed in a larger district. The results from this system will naturally be much more proportional than the status quo. It will also give voters more options and create a Legislature more closely mirrors the people of Hawaii.
However, the Legislature will still not be exactly proportional, and so adjustments will still necessary. It is still possible that a third party might get 10 percent of votes statewide, but fail to win any seats. That 10 percent of the Legislature would come from party list seats, where a party seats candidates from a statewide list created by party members.
Probably at least 30 percent of the overall seats would need to be party list seats in order to ensure proportionality. This will give political parties more influence and encourages voters to participate in political parties, renewing this important link between government and the people. Renewed participation also means more accountability for parties and is a means of bringing more people into the political process.
Party list seats are also a way for the party to advance their agenda and will accomplish the mandate given them by their members. Currently, despite the single party dominance, the party is unable to impose much discipline to advance a legislative agenda. Finally, in countries that have party list seats, these seats tend to be more likely to be filled by women and others underrepresented in politics, which creates a more diverse and representative Legislature in other ways.
Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely such reforms will be initiated by the Legislature. The best chance of passing such a change would be at a Hawaii state constitutional convention, which will be on the ballot in November. If you think Hawaii’s democracy can be improved, vote for the constitutional convention and then run as a delegate to help us change the status quo.
Proportional representation will not solve every political problem, but it will create a system of government that is significantly more responsible to the public.
In addition to proportional representation, other potential changes are ranked choice voting, term limits, ballot measures, and full public financing of elections. All of these measures could be passed at the constitutional convention and would radically transform Hawaii’s politics by returning political power to the people, to whom it rightfully belongs.
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to email@example.com. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.